Most countries have abolished the death penalty. The United States retains the death penalty, although it has attempted to make executions more humane. The Supreme Court has restricted use of the death penalty based on the type of crime and the characteristics of the criminal. Psychologists and other social scientists have conducted research on issues such as whether the death penalty serves as a deterrent, what drives public support for capital punishment, how jurors decide whether to sentence a defendant to life in prison or death by execution, and the possibility of wrongful convictions and executions.
Killing is one of the oldest forms of punishment for criminal behavior, and even today, executions are widespread. Worldwide, shooting, hanging, beheading, lethal injection, and stoning are the most frequently used methods of execution. According to Amnesty International, China currently leads the world in the annual number of executions, followed by Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United States, and Pakistan. The United States and Japan are the only industrialized democracies that still execute criminals. Read more about Death Penalty.
Death Penalty Research Topics
More than 1,000 condemned prisoners have been executed since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976. It is impossible to know exactly how many of these prisoners were actually innocent. Once a prisoner has been killed, courts rarely entertain claims of innocence, and lawyers, investigators, and journalists turn their attention to cases where possibly innocent prisoners can still be saved. Despite the difficulty of conclusively proving wrongful executions, there are a handful of cases where there is persuasive evidence that the wrong man was executed (e.g., Ruben Cantu, Gary Graham, Larry Griffin, James O’Dell, Leo Jones). The reality of wrongful conviction and wrongful execution raises the issue whether retention of the death penalty is so valuable that it justifies occasionally sending an innocent person to death row and perhaps to the execution chamber.
If the decision to retain or abandon capital punishment was based solely on research findings, it would have been abolished long ago. However, like many important social policies, the decision is driven by emotional and political as well as empirical considerations.
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