Backing Away From the Death Penalty

A Trend Broadens, With One Big Exception

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WASHINGTON, D.C., JULY 9, 2005 ( The resignation of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor from the U.S. Supreme Court will draw attention to a number of sensitive issues, including the death penalty. The eventual candidate’s record on this issue will likely face careful examination by the Senate, which votes on high-court nominees.

An Associated Press article July 2 noted that O’Connor played a key voting role on death penalty cases. Her successor, if seated by the start of the new term in October, would have to decide on four death penalty cases that are pending. The article noted that O’Connor supported the death penalty, but talked openly about her concerns as to whether it is being imposed fairly.

On March 21 the U.S. bishops’ conference launched a campaign against capital punishment. «We cannot teach that killing is wrong by killing. We cannot defend life by taking life,» argued Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop of Washington, when speaking at the National Press Club, according to a March 21 press release issued by the episcopal conference.

The initiative, under the title of the «Catholic Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penalty,» has its own Web site,

During the press conference launching the campaign, pollster John Zogby reported that support among Catholics for the death penalty has diminished notably. A survey done last November found that 48% of adult Catholics support the use of the death penalty, while 47% oppose it. This is a significant decline in support compared with past years. Moreover, frequent Mass-goers and younger Catholics are less likely to support capital punishment than other Catholics do.

In fact, both the number of executions and new death-penalty sentences are dropping, according to a report by the Death Penalty Information Center. The Washington, D.C.-based group, which issued data for 2004 last Dec. 14, reported that the number of people sentenced to death annually has dropped by 50% since 1999.

In addition, the number of individuals on death row fell slightly, from 3,504 in 2003 to 3,471 in 2004. Executions fell by 10%, down from 65 in 2003 to 59 in 2004. «The public’s confidence in the death penalty has seriously eroded over the past several years,» said Richard Dieter, DPIC executive director. «Because of so many failures, the death penalty is rightly on the defensive.»


Recent decisions have seen victories for opponents of the death penalty. The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, abolished capital punishment for juvenile offenders. The court concluded that the death penalty for minors is cruel and unusual punishment, and in the decision cited a «national consensus» against the practice, the Washington Post reported March 2.

The judgment overturned a 1989 ruling that had upheld the death penalty for 16- and 17-year-old offenders. Until then, 20 states permitted the death penalty for offenders younger than 18. There have been 22 executions of juveniles since 1976, when the death penalty was reintroduced.

The Washington Post noted that this was the second time in three years that the court had established a new category of persons exempt from the death penalty. In 2002 it banned capital punishment for the moderately mentally retarded.

In May, the Supreme Court dismissed a Mexican citizen’s appeal against his death sentence, but only after the federal government changed its policy regarding the rights of foreigners. The underlying issue in the case is whether the federal government follows the requirement of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations that the embassy officials of foreign citizens be notified of the trials, according to the New York Times on May 24.

In past years 51 Mexicans were tried and convicted without Mexico’s authorities being notified. Last December President George Bush told Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to instruct state courts to abide by a World Court ruling that required new hearings for the 51 Mexicans. The Supreme Court justices in fact did hear arguments in the case, but with the change in policy they eventually decided not to issue a ruling.

Thousands worldwide

On April 5 Amnesty International released a report on the application of the death penalty worldwide. The human rights group said 3,797 people in 25 countries were executed last year. As well, 7,395 in 64 countries were sentenced to death.

A few countries accounted for most of the executions. China officially executed at least 3,400 people, but the real number might be closer to 10,000, the report added, citing unnamed sources inside the country. Iran executed at least 159, and Vietnam at least 64. There were 59 executions in the United States, down from 65 in 2003.

«It is worrying that the vast majority of those executed in the world did not have fair trials,» the Amnesty International report stated. «Many were convicted on the basis of ‘evidence’ extracted under torture.»

There was some progress, however. Five countries abolished the death penalty for all crimes in 2004 — Bhutan, Greece, Samoa, Senegal and Turkey. By year-end, 120 countries had abolished the death penalty in law or practice.

Several countries in practice observe a moratorium on executions. A law implementing this came into force in July 2004 in Tajikistan. Last January President Aksar Akayev of Kyrgyzstan announced that a moratorium on executions, in place since 1998, would be extended for another year. Other countries in the same position include Malawi and South Korea.

As well, Amnesty International released a study on constitutional provisions precluding the death penalty. Turkey prohibited the death penalty in its constitution in 2004, as did Belgium last February. Other countries with recently enacted constitutional prohibitions of the death penalty include Ireland and Turkmenistan.

The large numbers of executions in China has drawn criticism, but the country’s leaders seem unfazed. According to an Associated Press report March 14, China’s premier, Wen Jiabao, stated that his nation has no plans to abolish the death penalty, though it will carry out reforms to ensure that it is used prudently.

Death vans

On March 20 the London-based Sunday Times drew attention to the execution methods used in China. Sentences are carried out in «death vans» parked near the courtrooms, where lethal injections put the condemned to death. Authorities prohibit any pictures of the death vans in operation, but the Sunday Times managed to obtain a photograph of one of them.

«After judgment is pronounced the criminal will be taken somewhere near the court, normally within 10 minutes’ drive,» said a policeman quoted in the article. «He will then be transferred to the lethal injection van. It’s all over very quickly.» The Sunday Times noted that a rare newspaper account of an execution on Jan. 19 in Liaoyang, a provincial capital, said that the convicted man, Li Jiao, was dead within 14 minutes of sentence being pronounced.

The vans are a relatively new means of execution. In the past, sentences were carried out by means of a single shot to the back of the head, and the families of the dead were sent a bill for the bullet. The death penalty, even though under challenge, will likely continue for some time.

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