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Research – Capital Punishment

Key Points

  • Capital punishment used to be sentenced for a variety of crimes in Canada, but as of 1961 its use was limited to homicide and treason.
  • On December 10, 1962, Robert Turpin and Arthur Lucas were the last people to be executed in Canada.
  • In 1967, a moratorium was placed on the death penalty.
  • In 1976, the death penalty was abolished as a sentence in Canada.
  • A total of 710 people have been executed in Canada; all were hanged.
  • Polls seem to indicate that around 60% of people support the death penalty, however some question how meaningful the issue really is to people.
  • A recent Supreme Court ruling suggests that the death penalty would violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in Canada today.



Capital punishment, or the death penalty, is the execution of a person by the state as punishment for a criminal conviction. Since this is such a serious and irreversible punishment, it is a very contentious issue with both strong supporters and vehement detractors. This article will provide an overview of the issues surrounding the death penalty with a focus on the Canadian experience.

The History of Capital Punishment in Canada

Prior to 1869, a multitude of offences were punishable by death in Canada including murder, rape, robbery with wounding, buggery of animal or beast, assault, casting away a ship, and unlawful abuse of a girl under ten. As of 1869, only three crimes were punishable by death: murder, rape, and treason (Justice Canada, 2009).

The first serious efforts to abolish the death penalty began in 1914 with a private members bill submitted by Robert Bickerdike who argued passionately against the death penalty. The bill was defeated that time and then reintroduced and defeated in 1915, 1916, and 1917. In 1950, another private members bill to amend the Criminal Code was introduced and struck down. The same bill was introduced again in 1953 but likewise withdrawn. That year, a Senate Committee was formed to investigate capital punishment, specifically to determine the feasibility of the abolition of capital punishment, and to make recommendations on the issue. The Committee’s report was released in 1956 and recommended retaining capital punishment but removing it for children under 18 years of age (Chandler, 1976). In 1961, legislation was passed which reclassified murder into two categories, capital and non-capital offences. Capital murder was defined as planned or intentional murder, murder that occurred during another violent crime, or the murder of a police officer or correctional officer while on duty. All other murder was thus non-capital. Under these new definitions, only capital murder was eligible for the death penalty (Justice Canada, 2009).

The last people to be executed in Canada were Robert Turpin and Arthur Lucas on December 10, 1962. At that time there was significant debate in Canada about the acceptability of using the death penalty. A few years later, in 1967, a moratorium was placed on the death penalty except for murders of correctional and police officers while on duty. Then on July 14, 1976, Bill C-84 was passed which abolished the death penalty in Canada. The one exception to this was under the National Defence Act where the death penalty remained a sentencing option, although never used, until 1998. Bill C-84 replaced the death sentence with life imprisonment (Justice Canada, 2009).

During the moratorium period from 1967 to 1976 the Governor General commuted all death sentences to life imprisonment. Throughout Canada’s history, the Cabinet reviewed all death sentences and decided whether to commute them under “prerogative of mercy.” If the Cabinet decided to commute a sentence then a recommendation was made to the Governor General who had the final say on the matter (Chandler, 1976). From 1957 to 1962, 80% of death sentences were commuted to life sentences by the Conservative government of the time. Once the Liberals gained power in 1963, and after Lucas and Turpin were executed, no one else was ever executed in Canada (Chandler, 1976). In total, 1,481 people have been sentenced to death in Canada; of those only 710 were executed. Of those executed, 697 were male and 13 were female. The only method of execution ever used in Canada was hanging (Justice Canada, 2009).

In 1987, a motion was introduced in the House of Commons to reintroduce the death penalty but it was defeated in a free vote of 148 to 127 (Justice Canada, 2009). This motion marked the last parliamentary move to reinstate the death penalty to date, although there has been considerable debate on the issue within the Canadian public.

The Law on Murder Today

First degree murder, which replaced capital murder, includes:

  • Murders that are planned and deliberate;
  • Contract killings;
  • When the victim is a police or correctional officer who is on duty;
  • And when the murder is committed during another crime such as kidnapping, hijacking, hostage taking, or sexual assault.

The punishment for first degree murder today is life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for 25 years. Second degree murder, which replaced non-capital murder, includes all murder that is not first degree. Second degree murder also carries a sentence of life imprisonment, however the time before one becomes eligible for parole ranges from 10 to 25 years.

section 745.6 of the Criminal Code of Canada, commonly known as the Faint Hope Clause, allows those serving life sentences who have served at least 15 years to apply to have their parole ineligibility reduced so that they may apply for parole. Offenders apply to the Chief Justice in their province. If the Chief Justice determines there is a chance for parole the case is heard by a jury and, if the jury unanimously concludes that the parole eligibility should be reduced, the case goes before the National Parole board at a time no earlier than the jury determines. Those convicted of multiple murders are not eligible to have their parole eligibility period reduced. (Criminal Code of Canada, 1985).

Public Opinion

Public opinion in Canada on the acceptability of the death penalty has varied over the years. One public opinion survey indicated that 73% of Canadian supported the reintroduction of the death penalty in 1987, while another poll the same year indicated 61%. In 1995, a study found that 69% of Canadians moderately or strongly supported the return of the death penalty. Some, however, question the true prevalence of the support, suggesting that it is “a mile wide and an inch deep”; in other words, common but without meaningful support (Amnesty International, 2000).

A more recent survey in 2000, using a combination of mail in surveys and telephone interviews for a total of 3,651 completed surveys across Canada, found that 45% of Canadians supported capital punishment (Blais, Gidengil, Nadeau, & Nevitte, 2000). In 2009, Angus Reid conducted online interviews and asked Canadians if they would support punishing murder with the death penalty; 62% said yes, 29% said no, and 10% were not sure. It is important to note that surveys of the Canadian public are not always truly representative of the population and results should be interpreted with caution. That said, it would appear that over the last 23 years public support of the death penalty has held on average around a little over half of those surveyed.


There are many perspectives on the merits of the death penalty. Let us look at some of the major issues:

Brutalization: The brutalization effect is a theory based on the idea that executions devalue human life and “demonstrate that it is correct and appropriate to kill those who have gravely offended us” (Bowers & Pierce, 1980:456). The hypothesis of this theory is that capital punishment actually increases the number of homicides in society. Several studies have examined this idea and have found either no evidence for a brutalization effect (Cochran, Chamlin, & Seth, 1994; Cochran & Chamlin, 2004) or a minor brutalization effect directly after an execution (King, 1978; Stack, 1987). Thus, the research is mixed and unclear on the issue of whether executions can send the message that human life is less valuable and therefore make it more acceptable to kill.

Deterrence: The deterrent effect supposes that executions send a message to potential criminals and reduce crime through the threat of severe punishment. There is a large amount of research on whether executions actually deter crime or not. Generally the evidence is conflicting, with some studies indicating that there is a deterrent effect (Cochran & Chamlin, 2000; Stack, 1987; Cloniger & Marchesini, 2001) and some that there is not (Seth, 1994; Bailey, 1998; Sorenson, Wrinkle, Brewer, & Marquart., 1999; Stolzenberg & D’Allesio, 2004). Researchers often debate the most appropriate research methods to use and the statistical methods best suited to the issue. Therefore, one study using certain methods will find a deterrent effect and another will not. In general, there is no strong evidence for or against deterrence. Some argue that capital punishment might only have an effect on planned murders, while other serious violent crimes are often done in the heat of the moment when one does not think about the consequences (Carlington, 1978).

Religion: The major faiths of the world have varied perspectives on the death penalty. One of the more common bible quotes raised in this issue is “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” (New International Bible, 2010, Exodus 21:23-25). This could be interpreted to mean that if someone has deliberately planned and committed the murder of an innocent person, then taking the life of the person who took a life is just. Conversely, Jesus is quoted as saying “whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also” (New International Bible, 2010, Mat. 5:38-39). This could be interpreted to mean that if someone harms you do not retaliate and harm them back. There are many arguments that could be made for or against the death penalty using Christian principles and texts. There is no clear consensus among Christian leaders.

Similarly, other religions have complex views on the issue, which might be interpreted in many different ways. Chapter 10 of the Dhammapada, a major Buddhist text, states that “everyone fears punishment; everyone fears death, just as you do. Therefore do not kill or cause to kill. Everyone fears punishment; everyone loves life, as you do. Therefore do not kill or cause to kill.” This quote clearly argues that killing others for punishment is not the answer. Alternatively however, “if the suffering of many disappears because of the suffering of one, then a compassionate person should induce that suffering for the sake of others” (Wallace & Wallace, 1997). This clearly argues that making one person suffer to alleviate the suffering of many is just. Similar arguments for and against the death penalty are present throughout other religions such as Hinduism and Islam.

Capital Punishment as Inhumane, Cruel and Unusual Punishment: Some consider the death penalty to constitute cruel and unusual punishment. The long waiting period; having to sit in jail for many years, sometimes fifteen or twenty, awaiting multiple appeals, knowing that you have been sentenced to die; is cruel enough in itself for some to oppose the death penalty. Death row phenomenon, the harmful effects experienced from solitary confinement while on death row, and death row syndrome, the resulting psychological harm that can occur as a consequence of living on death row, are two principles opponents of the death sentence cite as evidence of cruelty (Harrison & Tamony, 2010). Both experiences involve extensive trauma that can have long lasting psychological consequences, especially for a person who is later exonerated or has their sentence commuted to life. There are currently 3,261 people on death row in the United States. The three states with the most people on death row are California with 697, Florida with 398, and Texas with 337 (Fins, 2010).

During executions things have been known to go wrong that put the offender through a great deal of pain. In 1983, Jimmy Lee Gray was put to death in the gas chamber. The gas did not seem to have an effect upon him and eight minutes later Gray was still alive banging his head against a steel pipe (Clark, 1995). John Wayne Gacy was still alive for 18 minutes after he was given a lethal injection. The poison usually kills in less than five minutes but the IV tubes intended to carry the poison to Gacy clogged and had to be replaced. Some argue that the extended time of imminent death constitutes torture (Seideman, 1994). In May 1990, Jesse Tafero was executed in Florida. The electric chair malfunctioned and his head caught on fire before he was killed (McGarrahan, 1990). Opponents of capital punishment cite these examples as evidence that it is cruel and inhuman.

Chance That Innocent People May be Executed: There are many cases of wrongful convictions in Canada in which, if they had been cases prior to the abolishment of the death penalty, those wrongfully convicted could have faced the death penalty. For instance, David Milgaard was sentenced to life in prison in January of 1970 and spent 23 years in prison before being exonerated of murder in 1997 (CBC, 2008a). One of the more famous cases in Canada of wrongful convictions is that of Steven Truscott. Truscott, 14, was sentenced to hang on December 8, 1959 for the murder of a classmate. His hanging was postponed to February to allow for an appeal. Prior to the appeal his death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. In 2007 he was formally acquitted of all charges (CBC, 2008b). With the presence of the death penalty in Canada it is possible that these innocent men could have been executed.

In the United States there are dozens of cases of people who have been on death row but later found innocent or had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment, sometimes quite close to the date of their execution (Capital Defense Network, 2002). Randall Adams was sentenced to death in Texas in 1977 and exonerated in 1989 within one week of his execution. In Florida, William Jent and Ernest Miller were released from prison 16 hours before they were to be executed in 1988 (Radelet, Bedau, Putnam, 1992). Some argue that this shows the system works while others argue the fact they were convicted but were really innocent in the first place means the system is flawed. A review of 350 executions in the U.S. found that 23 persons who had been executed were believed to be innocent (Radelet, Bedau, Putnam, 1992; Margolick, 1985). This review is highly contested however by the U.S. Justice Department and some media reviewing the issue (Radelet & Bedau, 1998; Markman, 1994). On the other side, it is also argued that with the increase in technology such as DNA evidence, the chances of wrongful convictions today are very slim.

Cost of Capital Punishment vs. Life Imprisonment: A common argument against life imprisonment is that it costs a lot of money to keep someone in jail for their entire lives. In fact, capital punishment costs more due to the extensive appeal process. According to some, capital punishment costs too much and since life in prison still protects society and still gives victims justice, that life in prison is the better option (Chicago Sun-Times, 2010). A report in the United States of all the cases where the federal death penalty was authorized between 1998 and 2004, found that “the median cost of a case in which the Attorney General authorized seeking the death penalty was nearly eight times greater than the cost of a case that was eligible for capital prosecution but in which the death penalty was not authorized;” approximately $465,000 compared to $45,000 (Gould & Greenman, 2010: p.ix). In the U.S., certain Federal offences such as terrorism are eligible for the death penalty and the prosecution in each case decides whether or not to pursue it. What was found in the report is that when the prosecution sought death the trial costs were considerably higher than when they did not.

Death Penalty and Race: Some argue that Black people are overrepresented on death row and because of this the death penalty system as a whole is racist. Blacks represented 41.7% of the death row population in 1996, 38.7% of all those executed since 1977 (McAdams, 1998), yet only 12.8% of the population according to the 1996 U.S. Census (U.S. Census, 1996). Alternatively however, looking at a different set of statistics showing the murders and manslaughters known to police in 1996, there were 4,405 white offenders and 5,121 black offenders (Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics, 1996). This would indicate that black people, based on the number of black offenders committing homicides, are underrepresented on death row as they are more often charged with homicide and are thus proportionately sentenced to death less frequently. It is of course important to keep in mind that these statistics also indicate that black people are overrepresented as offenders of murder and manslaughter which is not directly related to the issue of capital punishment but suggests racism within the criminal justice system itself as whole.

Change in Murder Rate Since the Abolition of Capital Punishment: Some argue that since the murder rate was 1.3 per 100,000 people in Canada in 1961 and it is now 1.83 per 100,000 people as of 2008, the death penalty worked and should be reinstated. When the death penalty was a sentencing option the homicide rate in Canada was lower than it is now where the death penalty is not an option. The murder rate is higher today, but this is not necessarily the result of capital punishment. In 1976 the murder rate in Canada was 3.03 per 100,000, in 1985 it was 2.72 per 100,000, and in 1996 it was 2.14 per 100,000. The murder rate has changed over time and can fluctuate significantly from year to year. Yes, the homicide rate did rise considerably at the time of the abolition of the death penalty and it is possible that the rise and the abolition were related. Today, however, the rate has fallen considerably and fairly steadily over the past 35 years. Although it is not clear what contributed to the fall, it clearly was not the deterrent of the death penalty.

Methods of Execution

Over the course of history, a wide range of methods have been used to execute people: the guillotine, crushed by elephants, burning at the stake, even being trapped in a cave with poisonous snakes (Alex, 2007). In Canada, the only method of execution was hanging (Justice Canada, 2009). In the United States today there are various methods that are used to execute offenders including:

  1. Lethal injection – the offender is strapped to a bed and generally a combination of lethal drugs (sometimes only one depending on the state), such as cyanide, are injected into the bloodstream.
  2. Electrocution – the offender is strapped to a large chair and conductors are placed around the offender’s head and wrists. The offender is killed when a large amount of electricity is passed through his or her body.
  3. Lethal Gas – The offender is strapped into a large air-tight chamber. A deadly mixture of chemicals is slowly released into the chamber – killing the offender.

Federally in the U.S. all prisoners are executed through lethal injection. In some instances of violent crime, the state where the offence occurred may decide the means of execution although for all states that use the death penalty lethal injection is the primary method. (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2008). Lethal injection, electrocution, lethal gas, hanging, and firing squad are all options that are authorized in certain states across the USA. Lethal injection is generally the primary method, but for certain people sentenced to death before or a certain date or if a method is found to be unconstitutional then the offender is given another option (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2008).

Is Capital Punishment Unconstitutional?

Is capital punishment unconstitutional? Does it violate a person’s guaranteed right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment, and the right to life, liberty and security of the person? Many people find it ironic that anyone would consider the death penalty to be cruel and unusual punishment given the nature of the crimes many convicts have been sentenced to death for but others argue that it is hypocritical, constitutes a form of torture, and violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The Supreme Court of Canada has had to deal with the issue of capital punishment. Although in Canada capital punishment was eliminated before the Charter of 1982, the case of Charles Ng brought the issue to the attention of the Supreme Court. Ng, a Hong Kong citizen, abducted, tortured and murdered a number of people in California and managed to escape to Canada. He was arrested after shooting a security guard in the hand in a struggle when he was caught shoplifting. Ng argued that he should not be sent back to the United States as he would face the death penalty. If Canada did send him back to a country that may execute him, it would be cruel and unusual punishment. In 1991, the Federal Government asked for an advisory opinion on whether the decision to extradite Ng back to the United States would be unconstitutional, a violation of section 7 or 12 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Supreme Court responded in the negative with four of three judges ruling it was not a violation of the Charter to extradite a person to a country where they might face the death penalty (Reference re Ng Extradition, 1991).

In 2001, however, the Supreme Court made another ruling in United States v. Burns which found that the extradition of an individual to a state where they might face the death penalty, without an assurance the death penalty would not be used, would be a violation of section 7 of the Charter and would not be justified under section 1 of the Charter. Article 6 of the Extradition Act allows the Justice Minister to seek assurances that the death penalty would not be imposed or carried out if a person would be extradited from Canada. Therefore, without this assurance from the extraditing country, the Supreme Court found that extradition would be a violation of fundamental justice and right of liberty and security of the person as set out in section 7 of the Charter (United States v. Burns, 2001). This decision is obviously a complete reversal of the Ng extradition decision. This decision does not itself state that the use of the death penalty in Canada would be unconstitutional, but is certainly suggests so. Any attempt by Parliament to reinstate capital punishment would very likely face a serious charter challenge in the Supreme Court.


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