Posted on: July 25, 2020 Posted by: admin Comments: 0

Author : Vidhi Chouradia, Student at NLU, Nagpur


The capital punishment is age old concept, the history of it stretches back to thousand years. It was in a barbaric and brutal form in the past which have been reformed in the 21st century by adopting less painful methods of capital punishment. Though in modern world the capital punishment is ongoing debate on the humanitarian grounds. Therefore, many nations have abolished the capital punishment. The United Nation Organization has criticized the capital punishment since inception and the supported the reformative theory. From brutal and barbaric past of the capital punishment the world is divided in two sects one in support of deterrent theory the other opposing it.

The article covers the entire history of the capital punishment of three powerful nations United Kingdom, United States of America, Indian and also the brief history of Roman Laws for capital punishment.


The practice of executing a culprit is an age old concept. Capital punishment is practiced worldwide. The history of death penalty laws is long, stretching back to thousand years. The ‘Code of Hammurabi’ in the 18th century BC at Babylon is said to be the first law in regard to the capital punishment.[1] People were executed for all sorts of crimes, few state sentenced capital punishment for minor crimes as well. The methods of execution in ancient times was brutal and barbaric. Several countries reformed and abolished capital punishment while several nations believe that capital punishment is required to maintain peace and tranquillity by executing the offenders of capital offences.

  • Hammurabi Code to Roman Law:

The traces of implementing capital punishment can be witnessed back in 14th century B.C’s, Hittite Code. But the most prominent code was of the 18th century B.C, the code of king Hammurabi of Babylon. It was engraved on the stone tablets, and prescribed death penalty for almost twenty offences.[2]

The 7th century B.C’s, Draconian Code made death punishment for all sorts of crime. It was one of the barbaric code in itself, the saying was Draconian code was written with blood rather than ink. The 5th century B.C’s Roman Law of the Twelve Tablets have the same reputation. The death sentences were carried by crucifixion, drowning, beating to death, burning alive, and impalement.[3]

  • Capital Punishment in Great Britain:

The history of death penalty in United Kingdom can be traced back in ancient times. There are certain eras in the history of UK which marked the practice of capital punishment before it had been abolished. There are three phases of study about capital punishment in UK:

  1. Ancient era
  2. 18th century
  3. 19th and 20th century

These eras were the one where the practice of capital punishment by the state had shown the growth but later abolished on the humanitarian grounds in 21st century.

  1. The ancient era:

The oldest record of capital punishment available in UK history starts from the 5th century A.D brought by the Saxon which was practiced till final abolition in 1964[4]. The records of UK history states that death penalty was once abolished in 11th century by William, for almost a century, but in 12th century it was reinstated and finally abolished in the 20th Century.

In the reign of the King Alfred (871-899) the first time laws were made granting capital punishment[5]. These offences were charged for capital punishment. The revolutionary ruler King Athelstan raised criminal liability age from 12 to 16 years. He believed that children execution amounts to cruelty[6].

The successor of the William, Henry I reinstated the capital punishment in the state. He had a list of offences that amounted to capital punishment. The judicial system was developed where there was proper hearing and conviction for capital punishment. The courts were named as Eyres and some of their records still exist. Later, King Henry II (1154-1189) established Assize of Clarendon who were made responsible to enhance the list of felonies. The jury system was established. The common law system was setup which created a positive notion in the state. This continued till 19th century.[7]

 Finally, the Court Act of 1171 came into force and the new Crown Court system was introduced. The first time the detail of the executed person was made to kept in records. John Sanex was hanged for the offence of house breaking at Tyburl, London. The period of 11th &12th Century witnessed many executions without proper hearing and trial on the wish of the ruler.

In 1212, King John who was forced to sign the Magna Carta , first ever document stating about the rights and privileges of the subjects and restricting the power of the crown, by Runnymede proper rules were established and criminal trials were made possible. In the reign of Henry VIII, 1540 only eleven offences were marked for capital punishment, which later reached to 222 capital crimes. These laws were collectively started been called as bloody code.[8]

2.In 18th century: 

There were various methods adopted for execution in 18th century. The most severe of all the punishments was handing the body to the surgeons for dissection which was considered as the most effective theory of deterrence.

3. In 19th and 20th century in England:

This era mark the considerable change as many stood up against the policy of capital punishment. The capital offences were reduced to four by 1861 and last publicly hanging was done in 1868. Violet Van de Eist, a wealthy woman started opposing publicly in the streets and societies of England in the year 1930 against capital punishment. She wrote a book “On the gallows” to aware people the about the impact of capital punishment and how it was inhumane. The public opinion gradually turned against the capital punishment by 20th century. There were many examples where innocent was executed in England. [9]

In 1957, the death penalty as abolished for certain offences. There are certain years in the history of UK which played important role in abolishing the capital punishment:

  • In 1908, the execution of children below 16 years of age was abolished under the Children’s Act abolished.
  • In 1931, law was passed that the pregnant woman could not be hanged.
  • In 1933, mark changes in the capital punishment against juveniles. The minimum age was raised from 16 to 18 years.
  • In 1949, the Royal Commission was setup to make report on the capital punishment. It submitted its report in 1953, stating that the death penalty would retain unless there is strong public support for its abolishment.
  • In 1965, the bill was introduced in the parliament to abolish the capital punishment. It was passed with majority in House of Commons and in House of Lords in UK.
  • The Act was passed in 1965 which temporarily suspended the death penalty for five years but was made permanent in 1969 by parliament.
  • In 1997, the votes were done to reinstate the capital punishment but it failed on the humanitarian grounds.
  • Sixth Protocol of European Conventions on Human Rights, prohibited capital punishment except in war time or eminent threat to war.
  • Finally in 1998, the capital punishment was completely abolished.[10]

The history of United States in regard with capital punishment is recent. It has marked the beginning of capital punishment in 17th century. The history of capital punishment in United States is studied in four eras:[11]

  • The capital punishment in Colonial era
  • The capital punishment in 19th century
  • The progressive era, capital punishment in 20th century

The capital punishment in colonial era:

The United States was the colony of Britishers. The first time capital punishment was sentenced in 17th century in Jamestown colony in present day, Virginia. The capital offences were stealing grapes, trading with native Americans, or striking one’s mother or father.

Stuart Banner, the great historian termed the colonial era as vehement display of power and actions of the state in disobedience of law of land. The year 1642 recorded the execution of the juveniles. The ideology of deterrence was implemented to create fear among the subjects. The fake executions and burning of stake were conducted. In the 18th century, capital punishment was served as incapacitation in America. The only objective was to take away the freedom of the offender to prevent any further offences. The lack of prisons made death penalty, the primary method of incapacitation.

In 18th century the use of capital punishment started to be questioned. Pennsylvania became first state in 1786, abolished all kinds of death penalty for all offences excluding first degree murder, whereas Michigan abolished capital punishment for all crimes excluding treason in 1846. Many states continued to practise capital punishment until public started to stand against it, in 1950s.[12]

The capital punishment in 19th century:

By 19th century, the capital punishment became more frequent. The public execution became common thing. The execution was done like an event where several ceremonies were performed before and after execution. The intention behind public executions was to intensify fear, strengthen order and discrete prohibited deplorable violence by individuals. [13]

The abolition of capital punishment was supported by the northern states of America. Various efforts were made during 1820’s through 1850’s and 1860’s, the legislations were enacted which required one year period between death sentence and execution. In 1846, became the first state to abolish capital punishment for all crimes except treason. In 1852, Rhode Island abolished capital punishment completely for all crimes.

The southern states of America were still practicing capital. The capital punishment followed a new trend of executing on the basis of racism. If there was a rape attempt by a black person against white it was listed under capital offences. The first state to end public execution was Connecticut and adopted private execution in 1830. Pennsylvanian in 1834 and New York in 1835 abolished the capital punishment. The last public execution was done in Owensboro Kentucky in 1936.[14]

The progressive era, capital punishment in 20th century:

The 20th Century era witnessed a drastic change in the methods of execution in America. The brutal and barbaric methods of execution were modified with less painful method of execution in Public which is electrocution and by lethal gas etc. The beginning of the 20th Century was termed as the progressive era due to the number of reforms in America. In 1907 to 1917, about six states abolished the death penalty.

But by 1920, the states reinstated capital punishment due to increase revolutionary protest, wide spread media coverage and gangsters. The history of capital punishment in United States saw a peak in execution in 1940s. Then a gradual decline and by 1968 there were zero executions. [15]

In 1972, there was nationwide ban on capital punishment in U.S. the ruling was that capital punishment was cruel, arbitrary and discriminatory. After four years, the decision of the court was reversed, it ordered states to re-impose capital punishment until new reforms are made to solve the problems cited by the court in the earlier decision.This led to some corrections, including automatic appeals of death sentences and efforts to reduce sentencing disparities. But in the 21st century, a growing number of states began to implement statutory bans on the death penalty, including New YorkMaryland, and Illinois.[16]


The Capital punishment is an integral part of Indian penal system since ancient period. Indian law history is divided into three sects:

  1. Laws regarding capital punishment under the Hindu Law.
  2. Laws regarding capital sentence under Muslim Law.
  3. Laws regarding capital punishment under British rule in India.

Laws regarding capital punishment under the Hindu Law:

The capital punishment is as old as Hindu society. There are various ancient scripture and law book where capital punishment and its form are specified. The traces of capital punishment can be witnessed backed in 4th century. The more stress was given to deterrent and retributive theories.  The need of death penalty was observed by Kalidas and also in the holy scripts like Ramayana & Mahabharata. It was considered as need for an hour and priority of the king to safeguard the society and his subjects.[17]

Katyayana and Brahaspati both were the supporters of death penalty for religious merits. Manu scripts have stated the objects and circumstances of criminal offences and need for capital punishment. Kautilya, believed that the punishment was the universal means of ensuring public security. The various scripts and scholars have mentioned that brahmans were exempted from death penalty. The punishment was equally bestowed on both men and women.[18]

Laws regarding capital sentence under Muslim Law:

The Muslim law or the Islamic law believes in deterrent theory. The objective is to inculcate the fear. The Islamic Doctrine is based on the humanitarian grounds ad believe in penalty to the wrongdoer. Islamic laws have three types of crimes:

  • Huhud Crimes – the punishment granted by allah. These crime create chaos in the society. The list of crimes under huhud are Imputation of Adultery, shedding of blood, adultery, Apostasy and rebellion , Larceny drinking wine. These crimes are dealt strictly. Even court have no rights to remit the punishment for these crimes.
  • Tazir Crimes – these are second category of crimes where court can decide the punishment.
  • Qisas Crimes – these are social offences involving Diyut blood money or the compensatory mullet and Qisas (retaliation). The offences like homicide or unintentional homicide, wounding intentionally or unintentionally are covered under qisas.

There was no uniformity in the laws and grant of the punishment. The Mughal era marks the brutality to no one counts. There were barbaric methods implemented to execute the subjects. Lives of innocent was at risk.

Laws regarding capital punishment under British rule in India :

When the Britishers intruded India and established there empire they adopted the same methods of the Mughal in order to prevail deterrence in the society. But by the 1860 they have started making a minor changes and given India a systematized code where murder and culpable homicide was diffentiated. The offences of death penalty were strictly limited to the code. [19]

No objections were raised about capital punishment during British India’s Legislative Assembly until 1931. Shri Gaya Prasad Singh introduce a bill in parliament to abolish the capital punishment for offences under the Indian Penal Code. However, the motion was refused and India followed the british code as it was before independence.

On 15th Novemeber, 1949, the first death sentenced was given to Nathuram Godse and Narayan Apte for the Mahatma Gandhi assassination case in independent India. As per records the capital punishment is sentenced to as many as 720 prisoners India since 1947. Most of these hailed from Uttar Pradesh, followed by Haryana, 90 and Madhya Pradesh with 73 executions. Other examples of death penalty in independent India are of Yakub Memon, Muhammad Afzal Guru, Mohammad Ajmal Amir Qasab involved in terrorist activities against India. Recently in 2020, four convicts of Nirbhaya gang rape case were sentenced to death.


The capital punishment is not a new concept. It has changed with the civilized society. In ancient times the brutality was justified by the brutality but adopting less brutal method method of execution justify the act of the state. The offender should be punished according to offence they have committed. Capital punishment though not a bane in society but is always debatable on the humanitarian grounds. The barbaric criminals is the threat to society and therefore their death will cause no affect in the society. Rather it will mark a positivity and trust to the government.


[1] Death Penalty Information Centre. (2006g) . History of the Death Penalty. Retrieved from

[2] History of Death Penalty Laws, Find Law’s team of legal writers and editors, o7-o2- 2019,

[3] ibdi


[5] ibdi

[6] ibdi

[7] ibdi

[8] ibdi

[9] ibdi

[10] ibdi

[11] ibdi

[12] ibdi

[13] ibdi

[14] ibdi

[15] ibdi

[16] History of Death Penalty Laws, Find Law’s team of legal writers and editors, o7-o2- 2019,


[18] ibdi

[19] ibdi

Leave a Comment