I have long regarded the death penalty as little more than state sponsored terrorism. It's purpose, at least in the United States, seems to be two-fold: To terrorize the American underclass, and to pander to people who want criminals punished as harshly as possible. If it actually serves any other purpose in America, I am unaware of it.
In absolute numbers, though, the capital of the death penalty is not the US, but China. As recently as 2006, the Chinese government conducted two thirds of the world's legal executions. In 2005, it executed an estimated 1,770 people, and sentenced 4,000 to death.
Yet, it has recently done two things to reduce the number of state sponsored murders: (1) In January it began requiring all death sentences to be approved by the Supreme People's Court; and (2), very recently the Supreme People's Court ordered all other courts to reserve the death penalty for "an extremely small number of serious offenders".
We'll have to see what those reforms mean in practical measures, but I think they are steps in the right direction. Governments are evil enough without giving them the right to take the lives of their people.
China to Reduce Death Penalty Use
China Executions at "10 Year Low"
Facts and Statistics on the Death Penalty -- Amnesty International