During the resolution of inflammatory responses, neutrophils rapidly undergo apoptosis. A direct and fast activation of caspase-8 by cathepsin D was shown to be crucial in the initial steps of neutrophil apoptosis. Nevertheless, the activation mechanism of caspase-8 remains unclear. Here, by using site-specific mutants of caspase-8, we show that both cathepsin D-mediated proteolysis and homodimerization of caspase-8 are necessary to generate an active caspase-8. At acidic pH, cathepsin D specifically cleaved caspase-8 but not the initiator caspase-9 or -10 and significantly increased caspase-8 activity in dimerizing conditions. These events were completely abolished by pepstatin A, a pharmacological inhibitor of cathepsin D. The cathepsin D intra-chain proteolysis greatly stabilized the active site of caspase-8. Moreover, the main caspase-8 fragment generated by cathepsin D cleavage could be affinity-labeled with the active site probe biotin-VAD-fluoromethyl ketone, suggesting that this fragment is enzymatically active. Importantly, in an in vitro cell-free assay, the addition of recombinant human caspase-8 protein, pre-cleaved by cathepsin D, was followed by caspase-3 activation. Our data therefore indicate that cathepsin D is able to initiate the caspase cascade by direct activation of caspase-8. As cathepsin D is ubiquitously expressed, this may represent a general mechanism to induce apoptosis in a variety of immune and nonimmune cells.