Many distinctive doctrines in criminal law originated in efforts to restrict the number of capital crimes and
executions. For instance, in the late 18th century, when all murder in the United States was punishable by
death, Pennsylvania pioneered in dividing murder into two categories. The state enacted laws that
authorized punishment of first-degree murder by death, while second-degree murder was punishable by
imprisonment only. Elsewhere, penal codes uniformly required death for certain serious crimes. In these
jurisdictions, discretionary powers to commute death sentences gradually expanded. (A commutation
substitutes a lesser penalty for a more severe one—for example, replacing execution with a life
sentence.) Today in many nations, including Turkey and Japan, the death penalty remains legal but the
number of executions has declined over time.
Although many jurisdictions limited imposition of the death penalty, no government had formally abolished
until Michigan did so in 1846. Within 20 years Venezuela (1863) and Portugal (1867)
had formally eliminated the practice as well. By the beginning of the 20th century the
been abolished in a handful of nations, such as Colombia,
, Ecuador, Norway, and The
Netherlands. Although not formally eliminated, it had fallen into disuse in many others, including Brazil,
Cape Verde, Iceland, Monaco, and Panama.
The defeat of the Axis powers provided a foundation for the elimination of the death penalty in Western
Europe. Some of the nations involved in the war saw abolition of capital punishment as a way to
disassociate themselves from the atrocities that had taken place. Italy formally abolished the death
penalty in 1947 and the Federal Republic of Germany did so in 1949. The British government instituted a
Royal Commission to study capital punishment in 1950 and abolished the death penalty in 1965.
(Northern Ireland did not abolish capital punishment until 1973.) By the early 1980s every major country in
Europe had stopped executing criminals.
Coincident with this trend in Western Europe, many countries belonging to the Commonwealth of Nations,
an association of countries formerly affiliated with the British Empire, eliminated capital punishment. For
instance, Canada conducted its last execution in 1962 and abolished the death penalty in 1976. New
Zealand held its last execution in 1957 and Australia stopped executing criminals ten years later. A similar
burst of abolitionist activity coincided with the breakup of the Soviet Union. East Germany, the Czech
Republic, and Romania all outlawed capital punishment between 1987 and 1990. Throughout the former
Communist countries, abolition of the death penalty was a political act far removed from the usual domain
of criminal justice policy-making. Eliminating the death penalty was one of many ways the citizens of