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Capital Crime: Definition, Rates & Statistics

Instructor: Dan Grossi

Dan is a retired police sergeant and has taught criminal justice and legal studies for 8 years. He has a Master's degree in Criminal Justice and is pursuing his PhD.

Spies, terrorists, and murderers are all punished harshly for their crimes. These sever crimes are known as capital crimes, and offenders, if convicted, face the possibility of death. This lesson will explain capital crime, review the court process for those accused, and explore incarceration and execution statistics in the United States.

In America, it is a punishment reserved for the worst criminals. It is carried out by methods such as lethal injection, the electric chair, gas chamber, and even firing squad. The death penalty is the most severe punishment handed down by the government, but this sentence can only be given for certain crimes. A capital crime is any crime in which the sentence includes the possibility of the death penalty.

What Are Capital Crimes?

While laws vary from state to state, a capital crime includes any crime that is so severe a person may be put to death as a punishment. State and federal laws regarding the use of the death penalty are restricted by the Eighth Amendment, which protects against cruel and unusual punishment, and by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the case of Kennedy v. Louisiana, 554 U.S. 407 (208). In this case, the Supreme Court, citing the Eighth Amendment, found that states could only impose the death penalty for cases involving the death of a victim because otherwise the punishment would be disproportionate to the crime. In this case, Kennedy was convicted of raping his 8-year-old stepdaughter. Due to the injuries the victim sustained, she had to undergo emergency surgery. Because of the nature of the crime, Kennedy was found guilty of capital sexual battery and sentenced to death. The Supreme Court ruled that despite the seriousness of the crime, it is not proportionate to execute someone whose crime does not involve the death of another. Because the victim in this case did not die, the maximum sentence allowed would be life without the possibility of parole.

Most capital crimes involve the intentional killing of another.

In most cases, a capital crime involves the pre-meditated killing of another person, which is known as first-degree murder. Many states also require at least one aggravating circumstance such as multiple victims, murder during the commission of another felony, murder of a police officer, torture, hate crimes, or in especially cruel or heinous cases. For example, simply killing someone may not qualify as a capital crime in some states, but torturing and killing them would be. Likewise, a killing that is motivated by race, religion, or sexual orientation would be considered a hate crime, and could therefore be prosecuted as a capital crime. Crimes against the government do not necessarily have to involve death to be considered a capital crime. These include treason, espionage, terrorism, and drug trafficking.

Being Charged With a Capital Crime

The decision to charge an offender with a capital crime falls on the prosecuting attorneys. If an offense meets the requirements to be considered a capital crime, the prosecutor may choose to seek the death penalty. If a defendant is facing a capital charge, they may decide to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence rather than execution. Serial killer Gary Ridgeway (AKA 'The Green River Killer') was able to avoid the death penalty by pleading guilty to 48 murders. If the offender decides to go to trial, capital cases are handled through a two-phase court process known as a bifurcated trial. In the first phase, the jury hears the evidence to find the defendant either guilty or not guilty; if a guilty verdict is reached, a second hearing is held to determine the punishment.

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