A capital offense is a criminal charge that is punishable by the death penalty. It is not necessary that the actual punishment imposed was the death penalty, but rather a capital office is classified as such if the permissible punishment prescribed by the legislature for the offense is the death penalty. Although crimes punishable by death vary from state to state, generally, capital offenses include first degree murder, or murder with special circumstances.
For example, Virginia considers “willful, deliberate, and premeditated killing” in the commission of a robbery or terrorism among many others, to be a capital offense. Florida, in addition to murder with special circumstances, provides the death penalty for capital drug trafficking.
Currently, 22 states have abolished the death penalty. The federal government practiced capital punishment from the country’s beginning until 1972, when the U.S. Supreme Court, in Furman v. Georgia, found particular applications of capital punishment to be unconstitutional under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution. It was not reinstated until 1988, and then only for a very narrow class of capital offenses. In 1994, the Federal Death Penalty Act greatly expanded the number of eligible capital offenses to approximately 60.
[Last updated in August of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team]