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Punishment & Society Capital punishment and American culture
David Garland Punishment Society 2005; 7; 347 DOI: 10.1177/1462474505057097 The online version of this article can be found at:

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Copyright © SAGE Publications London, Thousand Oaks, CA and NewDelhi. 1462-4745; Vol 7(4): 347–376 DOI: 10.1177/1462474505057097 PUNISHMENT & SOCIETY

Capital punishment and American culture
DAVID GARLAND New York University, USA


This is an essay about capital punishment and American culture. Its point of departure is the recent publication of several books and articles suggesting that the USA’s retention of thedeath penalty is an expression of an underlying cultural tradition that creates an elective affinity between American society and the execution of criminal offenders. The implicit – and sometimes explicit – claim of this new literature is that today’s capital punishment system is an instance of ‘American exceptionalism’, an expression of a deep and abiding condition that has shaped the Americannation from its formative years to the present. I want to take issue with this idea. I want to reject this culturalist version of American exceptionalism and to resist the notion that there is something deep and abiding about American culture that propels its judicial system towards capital punishment. In taking issue with these specific propositions and the books in which they are developed, I suggestan alternative way of understanding the continuation of capital punishment in the USA after 1972. In the course of this discussion, I also raise some more general issues about concepts of ‘culture’ and their use in the sociology of punishment.


Developments at home and abroad have recently given American capital punishment a distinctiveness thatit did not previously possess. It has become distinctive in that no other western nation now retains capital punishment while in the USA, the death penalty is still imposed and offenders are still put to death. With regard to executions, the USA has been alone (among western nations) since 1977 when France executed offenders for the last time. With regard to law, its singular status dates from1981 when the French Assembly abolished the penalty of judicial execution. Most western nations had stopped executing offenders for ordinary crimes by the 1960s, though it took until the 1990s for many of them to abolish it for special offences such as wartime offences and crimes against the state.1 The sense of the USA’s distinctiveness increased in the 1990s. In a period when many nationscompletely abolished the penalty, international conventions outlawed it2 and
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Europe finally became a death penalty-free zone, the USA moved rapidly in the opposite direction, increasing its annual number of executions (from one or two per year at the start of the 1980s to a peak of 98in 1999), passing new capital punishment legislation, reducing the level of judicial review and regulation3 and consolidating an increasingly bipartisan political support for the institution. So, the USA is now on its own. There are other democratic nations that are retentionist: India, the world’s largest democracy, still executes offenders (though it does so more rarely than the USA and most...
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