Death Penalty On Decline

Recent Meeting Spurs Abolitionists

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By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, MARCH 14, 2010 ( There is an increasing move away from the death penalty, according to participants in a recent congress. From Feb. 24-26, campaigners against the death penalty met at the World Congress Against the Death Penalty, in Geneva, Switzerland.

“There is a new trend against the death penalty that is something new for the world,” said Mario Marazziti, spokesman for the Community of Sant’Egidio, told Reuters in a report published on the opening day of the meeting.

According to Reuters Marazziti told a briefing that 56 countries continued to execute people, while 141 countries did not use the death penalty, including 93 that had formally abolished it altogether.

The Community of Sant’Egido has a Web site dedicated to promoting the abolition of the death penalty, and on it they posted some reports by Marazziti about the congress.

On Feb. 25 he posted some details about the congress and the use of the death penalty.

Over 1,000 activists and experts attended the gathering and they heard that, according to Amnesty International 2,390 persons were executed in 2008.

The countries where the most executions took place in 2008 included China (1,718), Iran (346), Saudi Arabia (102), the United States (37), Pakistan (36), Iraq (34), Vietnam (19), Afghanistan (17), and North Korea and Japan (15 each).

That might seem a lot, he noted, but there has been remarkable progress in reducing the number of countries that utilize capital punishment. Back in the 1970s, only 23 countries had abolished the death penalty, either by removing it from the statute books or ceasing to practice it, Marazziti observed.

Whereas now we have around 140 countries without the death penalty, he pointed out. The exact number is a bit uncertain, he admitted, as some groups suspect there have been small numbers of executions carried out in secret in one or two countries.


Among recent triumphs against the death penalty Marazziti highlighted the cases of Cambodia, Rwanda and Burundi, “three countries that have really suffered the last three big genocides in contemporary history, yet feel that only without the death penalty can a reconciliation process be started in their societies. Otherwise revenge, and the thirst for revenge, will never end.”

These countries’ abolition of capital punishment is “a very symbolic and meaningful step that can be an answer to those countries that say: ‘We have a high level of violence, we need the death penalty,'” Marazziti commented.

During the congress an initiative of obtaining an effective moratorium on the use of the death penalty by 2015 was proposed. This was put forward as a step toward total abolition.

The year 2015 coincides with the deadline approved in 2000 by U.N. member countries for achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which set targets for reducing hunger, poverty and disease and improving education and health.

On Feb. 26 Marazziti published a synthesis of the addresses presented in Geneva. The death penalty is not an effective deterrent against crime, he argued, because it is based on a legitimization of a culture of death. He also affirmed that it is often marred by social, racial and ethnic discrimination. He added that mistakes in the judicial system create new victims.

Flawed justice

Marazziti commented that the death penalty does not bring about a satisfactory outcome for the families who were affected by the criminal. The justice that results is marred by a flawed sense of revenge and retaliation. He described the death penalty as “a tool of justice still rooted in a childish and primitive state of humanity, based more on instinct.”

Marazziti noted that many of the participants at the congress referred to the need to bring about a change in public opinion in those countries where the death penalty is still practiced. To do this more allies must be found, and also new ways of communicating the message of abolitionists.

Often in countries where the death penalty is in use there is a lack of debate over the issue, Marazziti maintained. As well, there is ignorance about the issues related to crime and the use of capital punishment.

A large proportion of media attention is devoted to the practice of the death penalty in the United States. There too it is in decline, according to a report published toward the end of 2009 by an organization called the Death Penalty Information Center.

The report noted that sentences to the death penalty continued to diminish in 2009. In fact, last year saw the lowest number of death sentences since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.

The high point of sentences to capital punishment was reached in 1994, with the number of 328. By 2009 this had dropped drastically, to 106, the seventh straight year of decline. It was also notable that the decline in death sentences was particularly pronounced in Texas and Virginia, the two leading states in carrying out executions, the report commented.

U.S. decline

During the 1990s, Texas averaged 34 death sentences per year and Virginia averaged 6. In 2009, Texas had nine death sentences and Virginia one.

Overall in 2009, 11 states considered legislative proposals to repeal the death penalty. New Mexico became the 15th state to end the death penalty when Governor Bill Richardson signed the law in March. The Connecticut legislature voted to abolish the death penalty, but the governor vetoed the bill. Legislation to end capital punishment passed one house of the legislature in Colorado and Montana, and came close to passage in Maryland, according to the report.

One factor militating against the death penalty is the cost, as states faced severe budget deficits. “High expenses with no measurable benefits were frequently cited in legislative debates about the death penalty,” the report noted.

While sentences declined the number of executions rose in 2009 compared to the previous year. According to the report this was partly because of the de facto moratorium on executions for four months of 2008 as the Supreme Court addressed the question of the legality of lethal injections.

As a result, in 2009 there were 52 executions. This number was 47% less compared to a decade ago. Only 11 of the 35 states with the death penalty carried out an execution in 2009. Eighty-seven percent of executions were in the south, and over half of those were in Texas.

The report also commented that nine men who had been sentenced to death were exonerated and freed in 2009, the second highest number of exonerations since the death penalty was reinstated.

Justice and mercy

Just prior to the Geneva congress, good news came from the world’s leading executioner, China. China’s highest court, the Supreme People’s Court, instructed tribunals to use a policy of “justice tempered with mercy,” the Associated Press reported Feb. 10.

The new guidelines require courts to limit the use of the death penalty to a small number of extremely serious cases.

The battles continue, nevertheless, as recent news from South Korea demonstrates. According to a Feb. 25 report by the UCA News the country’s Constitutional Court ruled that the death penalty is legally valid.

Five of the nine Constitutional Court justices upheld the death penalty while the other four said that it is unconstitutional.

Bishop Boniface Choi Ki-san, president of the Korean bishops’ Committee for Justice and Peace, told UCA News that he hoped the government would not use the decision to resume executions. There has not been one in the country for more than 12 years.

“Currently, South Korea is categorized as an abolitionist country in practice,” the bishop said. “The government should not resume the execution with the court’s ruling.” While the campaign against the death penalty has enjoyed considerable success the battle is still far from over.

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