Death penalty - a controversial issue

Among the more discussed topics, surely we can count the issue of death penalty. A parent who has lost his son or daughter can see in death penalty a way to get even. Actually, after the execution, he will not receive his loved one back. Instead, someone else will miss their loved one too. What then if the accused one is in reality innocent? Can a man perfectly judge another man to the point to be entrusted with the power of life and death of another human been?

The death penalty has always characterised the life of man, even in ancient times there are testimonies about it. For example Ötzi (or Iceman even called the Mummy of Similaun) was found with a noose around his neck and with ritual signs. The Incas executed their prisoners of war, taking away their heart and sacrificing it to the gods.

The history of the death penalty is characterised by major historical moment:

  • In the Code of Hammurabi (one of the oldest collections of laws known in human history, written during the reign of the Babylonian king Hammurabi 1792-1750 BC), which made s a very broad use of the “law of retaliation”. The punishment for various crimes is in fact often identical to the wrong or damage done. Hammurabi decreed a limit to revenge. The code was so important that it was absorbed by other cultures. The law of retaliation, in Latin lex talionis, is a principle of law used by the ancient populations consisting of the option accorded to a person who has received an offense to inflict a penalty equal to the offense the offender received.
  • In the Bible. Commonly the principle is expressed by the phrase an “eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”, which is derived from a verse in the Bible:

“23But if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. 26 When a man strikes the eye of his servant, or his maid, becoming blind; he shall go free for the eye. 27 if he smite out his manservant's tooth, or his maidservant, he will let him go free for the tooth. ”(Exodus 21: 23-27)

  • Inside the “On Crimes and Punishments”, a treatise written in 1763 by Bonesana Cesare, Marquis of Beccaria, jurist, philosopher, economist and writer and maternal grandfather of Alessandro Manzoni, in which he says that torture should be abolished and that if a state must implement the death penalty just has to do it in the most civil and painless way as possible.

It was believed that somehow the culprit, suffering as much as possible, could repay the crime he had committed. In addition, the executions were public.


In France, Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin presented October 9, 1789 to the National Assembly a bill in six articles in which it was stated that:

  • the penalties would have to be identical for all, without distinction of rank of the condemned.
  • In case of application of the death penalty, the punishment should be the same, regardless of the crime committed, and that the condemned man was to be beheaded by means of a simple mechanism, the guillotine in fact. The convict would have only felt like a bucket of cold water or a breath of fresh air on his neck.

In France the condemned one to the guillotine were also anesthetized.


In America the former President George H. W. Bush pointed to as the official method of execution by lethal injection, while leaving the States free to employ other systems.

Lethal injection consists of three injected intravenously poisons, in the following order:

  • Sodium thiopental (Pentothal Sodium);
  • A sedative administered a lethal dose;
  • Pancuronium bromide (Pavulon), a muscle relaxant act to paralyze the diaphragm and to discontinue the pulmonary potassium chloride, aiming to stop the heartbeat.

The condemned is usually pronounced dead after 7 minutes, but there were also cases of agonies in which the condemned one lasted over 10 minutes. Opponents of the death penalty argue that the convicted person retains consciousness during the suffocation caused by the second poison.

Lethal injection is adopted from the 1st of January 1974, the date of reinstatement of capital punishment. After this, from June 26, 1972, it had been suspended by the Supreme Court for the hypothesis of its unconstitutionality (eighth amendment).

From 1819 to 1923, the method used was the hanging, from 1899 to 1964, however, in some states it was used the electric chair. It is sometimes also done using the shooting.


In Piedmont, with Savoia, the death penalty was imparted by hanging. When Italy was united, the death penalty spread to all the nation, but the law was not applied. It was reintroduced in 1926 by Mussolini in order to punish those who would attempt on the life or freedom of the royal family, the head of government and for various crimes against the State.

The Rocco Code, which entered into force on 1st July 1931 increased the number of crimes against the State punishable by death, reintroducing the death penalty for some serious common crimes.

After the fall of the fascist regime (25th July 1943), on August 10, 1944, a decree abolished the death penalty for all crimes under the Criminal Code of 1931. It was, however, kept in force for the crimes of collaboration with the fascist and nazi-fascists. After the end of the war a new Legislative Decree admitted again the death penalty as a temporary and exceptional measure for serious crimes such as robbery, extortion, kidnapping for purposes of robbery or extortion, incorporation or organization of an armed gang. The decree was effective up to one year after the termination of the state of war.

These provisions continued to be in effect until April 15, 1948. The Republican Constitution, which repealed the death penalty for all crimes committed in time of peace, however, had already entered into force on January 1, 1948.

It should be remembered that the death penalty had already been abolished “de facto” before the introduction of the code Zanardelli, thanks to the amnesty decree of 18 January 1878 of King Umberto I of Savoy. After the assassination of Umberto I in Monza in 1900 by Italian anarchist Gaetano Brescia, it started a press campaign for the restoration of the maximum sentence.The spirit of abolitionist Cesare Beccaria was able to resist the impetus of that clash. Eventually the death penalty was reintroduced for ordinary crimes.

During the First World War, the statistics do not include the death sentences made in those years, so that the beginning of the twentieth century appears immune from punishment.

In truth, immediately after the war, Benito Mussolini at first opposed to the death penalty - when he was still with the Socialist Party. In a second time,vthrough the newspaper which he directed (The People of Italy) Mussolini took the opportunity to launch a campaign in favour of death penalty.

Initially, in 1926, the campaign for the restoration of the death penalty was limited to serious crimes committed against members of the royal family but, after numerous attacks aiming to kill the same Mussolini, the 4th November of the same year, the Senate voted compactly the reintroduction of the maximum sentence for political crimes against the State and even for common crimes.

The regime did everything to avoid the public the impression that death penalty a measure of pure emergency with a dictatorial brand: both the Minister of Justice Alfredo Rocco and Mussolini himself guaranteed that the law and the special court on the death penalty would remain in force for a maximum of six years.

In fact they persisted until 25 April 1945. On 28 October 1930 the Official Gazette published the final text of the new Penal Code, which provided for the death penalty by firing squad, directly applicable within the prison through the work of the armed forces and police officers.

To persuade the public of the utility of such measure, the Minister of Justice and his propagandists had to resort to a real manipulation of statistical data.

In subsequent years, as clear prove of the inadequacy of the death penalty as a psychological deterrent, the murders began to increase. In fact Benito Mussolini kill his son in law, Galeazzo Ciano, by firing squad.

The last death sentence was imposed to the three authors of a massacre during a robbery in 1945 in a farmhouse of Villarbasse (TO): ten people were massacred with clubs and thrown, still alive, into a cistern.

The head of state Enrico De Nicola rejected the grace and March 4, 1947 was performed the last shooting in Italy in Basse di Stura, near Turin.

The final abolition was ratified on January 1st, 1948, by the Italian Constitution, with the exception of three cases:

  • assassination attempt on the President of the Republic;
  • looting;
  • martial law (ie in case of war).

The Constitutional Act of 2 October 2007 eliminated the death penalty by the military laws of war, elimination, however, already occurred in the ordinary way with the law of 13 October 1994, therefore, the total abolition of the death penalty is now established at constitutional level.

In Italy there are still people with 700 years of prison sentence or 8 life sentences because during the years of terrorism (1970-80) General Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa instituted these sentences as the sum of all crimes so that even after removing a few years for good behavior or other reasons, many more remained.

The General Dalla Chiesa was sent to fight the Mafia and asked to implement the same procedure but this was not allowed. It was not even granted to him an armoured car. He was killed with his young wife, by an armed mob.

The validity of death penalty

According to statistics the death penalty serves as a deterrent. In reality it seems the exact opposite.

In fact, if you commit a murder in Britain you have little chance of being caught (17%). Secondly the more the law is strict, the greater is the desire to break it.

In addition, before condemning a person to death it is essential to be sure that it is guilty.

One example is the case of Ferdinando Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, who had emigrated to the United States in the twenties. They were arrested, tried and executed on the electric chair: they were accused of murder of an accountant and a guard of a shoes factory. About their guilt, there were many doubts even at the time of their trial. It was useful the confession of the prisoner Puerto Rican Celestino Madeiros, which exonerated the two.

Exactly 50 years after their death, August 23rd, 1977, Michael Dukakis, Governor of the State of Massachusetts, officially recognized the mistakes made in the process and completely rehabilitated the memory of Sacco and Vanzetti.

It is thought that the worst people are the ones in prison , but statistically it is not true: in fact, the percentage of offenders who commit crimes again is 8%. In some States the death penalty is not present, while in others there is but it is nt not applied. You can die for reasons that we are not even crimes, for example. In the East we can die for smuggling cloves (China, which holds the world record with 5000 executions per year).

Also you may be sentenced to death for:

  • betrayal: that is, for adultery, in almost all countries is only valid for the woman who betrays is beheaded;
  • homosexuality: worldwide there are 91 countries where homosexual behavior, including 6 in which the legislation is ambiguous - Burkina Faso, Costa Rica, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq. Seven countries sentence to the death penalty anyone who is guilty of the crime of homosexuality: Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Iran, Nigeria, Mauritania, Sudan, Yemen;
  • atheism (eg. Iran);
  • blasphemy, in countries where Sharia law is in force and in other countries (such as Pakistan), is punishable by death.

Today death penalty is generally not accepted by the public. Even victim of brutal crimes tend to reject this practice. Probably the reason is the recognised human deficiency in judging others in a perfect way: prison gives to judges the possibility to undo, even if partially, the effect of a wrong judgement.


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