Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Death Penalty Definition:

A sentence of death imposed on a convicted criminal.

Related Terms: Capital Punishment, Capital Offence, Corporal Punishment, Death, Treason, Guillotine, Cruel and Unusual Punishment

Also known as capital punishment, this is the most severe form of corporal punishment as it is requires law enforcement officers to kill (to cause the death of, to end the life) of the convicted offender.

Forms of the death penalty include lethal injection, hanging from the neck, gassing, firing squad and has included use of the guillotine.

Here is an example of a death penalty warrrant which sets out the requisite detail as to execution (circa 1890):

"The mode of inflicting the punishment of death shall in all cases be hanging by the neck until the person is dead.

"Whenever the punishment of death is inflicted upon any convict in obedience to a warrant from the governor of the State, the sheriff of the county shall be present at the execution, unless prevented by sickness or other casualty; and he may have such military guard as he may think proper....

death penalty gurney"The warrant of execution shall be executed before the hour of sunrise of the day designated in the warrant and within the walls of the jail in all cases where the jail is so constructed that it can be conveniently done therein; but when the jail is not so constructed, the warrant shall be executed within an enclosure which shall be higher than the gallows, and shall exclude the view of persons outside, and which shall be prepared for that purpose, under the direction of the sheriff, in the immediate vicinity of the jail, or, if there be no jail in the county, at some convenient place at the county-seat, to be selected by the sheriff.

"After the issue of the warrant for execution by the governor, the prisoner shall be kept in solitary confinement, and the following persons shall be allowed to visit him, but none other, viz. : the sheriff and his deputies, the prisoner's counsel, any priest or clergyman the prisoner may select, and the members of his immediate family.

"Besides the sheriff and his assistants, the following persons may be present at the execution, but none other: the clergyman or priest in attendance upon the prisoner and such other persons as the prisoner may designate, not exceeding three in number, a physician or surgeon, to be selected by the sheriff, and such other persons as the sheriff may designate, not exceeding six in number, but no person so admitted shall be a newspaper reporter or representative.

"No account of the details of such execution, beyond the statement of the fact that such convict was on the day in question duly executed according to law, shall be published in any newspaper."1

More recently (2005):

"Lethal injection (some combination of sodium Pentothal, Pavulon, and potassium chloride), which is commonly thought to be the most humane form of execution, is consistent with contemporary standards of decency. Of the thirty-eight states that presently have capital punishment, approximately thirty-seven have legislation adopting lethal injection as the primary means of execution. Moreover, no court has ever held that lethal injection is cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution."2


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