The death penalty has a long and varied history in present-day Romania. Vlad III the Impaler (reigned in Wallachia, principally 1456–62) was notorious for executing thousands by impalement. One of his successors, Constantine Hangerli, was strangled, shot, stabbed and beheaded by the Ottomans in 1799. Two of the leaders of the Revolt of Horea, Cloşca and Crişan were broken on the wheel by the Imperial Austrian authorities (which then controlled Transylvania) in 1785.
The modern Romanian state was formed in 1859 after the unification of the Danubian Principalities, and a Penal Code was enacted in 1864 that did not provide for the death penalty except for several wartime offences. The 1866 Constitution, inspired by the liberal Belgian model of 1831, confirmed the abolition of capital punishment for peacetime crimes. By the end of the 19th century, just six other European countries had abolished the death penalty: Belgium, Finland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Portugal.
Liviu Rebreanu's 1922 novel Pădurea spânzuraţilor ("The Forest of the Hanged"), as well as its 1965 film adaptation, draws upon the experience of his brother Emil, hanged for desertion in 1917, shortly before Austria-Hungary dissolved and Transylvania joined Romania.
Abolition with respect to peacetime crimes was reaffirmed by article 16 of the 1923 Constitution. However, the rising crime rate had produced a shift in favour of capital punishment. In 1924 a special statute (the Mârzescu Law) allowed communist agitators to be executed. The new Criminal Code of 1936 incorporated some sections of the Law despite the drafters' opposition to capital punishment. The 1938 Constitution, which established a royal dictatorship, expanded the scope of capital crimes by authorizing the death penalty for offences against the royal family, against high-ranking public figures, for politically-motivated murders, and for killings caused during burglaries. The Penal Code was subsequently amended to implement the constitutional mandate. Some of these executions were quite summary: for instance, after Prime Minister Armand Călinescu was assassinated in September 1939, 253 Iron Guard activists were killed without trial in the next few days; members of the Guard would themselves carry out the Jilava Massacre a year later. During World War II, under the dictatorship of Ion Antonescu, criminal laws became even more repressive. Burglary, theft of weapons, arson, smuggling, and several other crimes were made capital; the Iron Guard was targeted after its violent suppression, with the Jilava executioners and participants in the Legionnaires' rebellion figuring among those executed by firing squad. Certain political opponents such as communists and anti-German resistance fighters were executed, including Francisc Panet and Filimon Sârbu, although many of the former were merely imprisoned.
Two statutes dealing with war crimes were passed in 1945; the following year, Antonescu and a number of his followers were executed by firing squad. Between 1945 and 1964, largely corresponding with the rule of Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, 137 people were executed in Romania, including Lucreţiu Pătrăşcanu, Eugen Ţurcanu, the Ioanid Gang, the Berne group, members of the anti-communist resistance movement and protesters during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. These executions came following a 1949 law providing the death penalty for offences against the communist state and the planned economy. The amended 1936 Code provided for the death penalty for some crimes against the state, peace and humanity, for aggravated murder and for burglary resulting in death; in 1957, large-scale embezzlement causing serious damage to the national economy was added to the list. In 1958, the act of contacting foreigners in order to provoke the state into neutrality or an act of war was made subject to the death penalty; this was a clear reference to measures taken by Imre Nagy during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and was made more urgent by the withdrawal of Soviet occupying forces that summer, which led the regime to clamp down on internal dissent. The definition of "economic sabotage" and "hooliganism" was broadened, and the first executions under the new measures took place that autumn. Under Nicolae Ceauşescu, a new Penal Code adopted in 1969 featured 28 capital offences, including economic and property crimes. This number was substantially reduced in the 1970s; in particular, the death penalty for economic crimes was abolished. Among those executed during this period were Ion Rîmaru and Gheorghe Ştefănescu. From 1980 to 1989, 57 death sentences were passed, and at least fifty executions carried out. Most convictions involved murder, but some were for large-scale theft of state property. For instance, in 1983, five individuals were sentenced to die for organized and systematic stealing of large quantities of meat.
During Ceauşescu's entire time in power (1965–89), 104 people were executed by firing squad at Jilava and Rahova prisons, with commutations reinforcing his image as a stern but kind father to the nation. At Jilava, prisoners were taken outside, to the right side of the prison, tied to a post and shot by six, ten or even twelve junior officers, while at Rahova, they were shot in an underground room; the entire process was shrouded in secrecy. Executions normally happened days after an appeal was rejected, and those shot at Jilava were usually buried in the village cemetery. Minors, pregnant women and women with children aged under 3 were exempt from the death penalty. Romania's last executions came during the Romanian Revolution of 1989 — those of Nicolae and Elena Ceauşescu.
Right after the Ceauşescus were summarily shot, the leaders of the National Salvation Front abolished the death penalty by decree; some Romanians saw this as a way for former Communists to escape punishment and demanded reinstatement of the death penalty in a series of protests in January 1990. On 27 February 1991, Romania ratified the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant (Law nr. 7/1991). The new Constitution, ratified that December, explicitly prohibits the death penalty. The Constitution provides that no amendment is allowed if it were to result in the suppression of fundamental rights and freedoms, which has been interpreted to mean that the death penalty may not be reinstated as long as the present Constitution is in force. Romania is also subject to the European Convention on Human Rights (since May 1994) and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (since January 2007), both abolitionist documents.