Analysis Written by Father John Flynn:
The recent execution of 47 prisoners in Saudi Arabia brought the death penalty once more to public attention. According to reports only four of those executed were guilty of crimes in the most severe category.
The latest overview of the global situation on the death penalty comes from a report published last March by Amnesty International, titled “Death sentences and executions in 2014.”
The report did note that some countries keep secret their use of the death penalty, making verification of what is happening very difficult. For example Amnesty International believes that literally thousands of people are executed each year in China, yet no official information on the numbers is available.
According to the report there were executions in 22 countries in 2014, the same number as in 2013.
At least 607 executions were carried out worldwide, a decrease of almost 22% compared with 2013. As previously noted this figure does not include the number of people executed in China.
At least 2,466 people are known to have been sentenced to death in 2014, an increase of 28% compared with 2013. This increase was largely due to sharp spikes in death sentences in Egypt and Nigeria, where courts imposed mass sentences against scores of people in some cases.
More recent information on the state of the death penalty comes from the United States and was published December 16 by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC).
According to “The Death Penalty in 2015: Year End Report” capital punishment continued to decline in 2015, with 28 people executed – the fewest since 1991 and down from 35 in 2014. It was also the first time in 24 years that fewer than 30 executions were carried out.
New death sentences imposed dropped 33% from last year’s already historic low of 73, with 49 people being sentenced to death in 2015. This was the fifth consecutive year in which fewer than 100 death sentences were imposed in the U.S.
Last year Nebraska legislatively abolished the death penalty; the Connecticut Supreme Court declared its death penalty unconstitutional; and Pennsylvania joined three other states in imposing gubernatorial moratoria on executions.
The DPIC also highlighted the very restricted geographical use of the death penalty. Only six states carried out executions, the fewest since 1988; and three states (Texas, Missouri, and Georgia) accounted for 86% of all executions, the report explained. This compares with twenty states that applied the death penalty in 1999.
In addition, nearly two-thirds of all new death sentences this year came from the same 2% of U.S. counties that are responsible for more than half of all death-sentenced inmates nationwide.
According to the Center public support for the death penalty also dropped. The 2015 American Values Survey found that a majority of Americans prefer life without parole to the death penalty as punishment for people convicted of murder.
“The use of the death penalty is becoming increasingly rare and increasingly isolated in the United States. These are not just annual blips in statistics, but reflect a broad change in attitudes about capital punishment across the country,” said Robert Dunham, DPIC’s Executive Director.
The report also expressed concern over flaws in the way the death penalty is carried out. Six prisoners on death row were exonerated of all charges in 2015. Collectively they had spent more than a century on death row. Since 1973, a total of 156 inmates have been exonerated and freed from death row.
The DPIC also commented that there is a risk that judicial review is inadequate to protect capital defendants with serious intellectual disabilities or crippling mental illness.
“The death penalty is supposed to be reserved for the worst of the worst crimes and the worst of the worst offenders. However, … [t]wo-thirds of the 28 people executed in 2015 exhibited symptoms of severe mental illness, intellectual disability, the debilitating effects of extreme trauma and abuse, or some combination of the three,” the report said.
For example, Missouri executed Cecil Clayton, a 74-year-old mentally ill man suffering from hallucinations, delusions, and dementia. Clayton literally had a hole in his head from a sawmill accident and was missing 20% of his prefrontal cortex, leaving him with an IQ of 71.
As well, more than 20% of death sentences imposed in the U.S. since 2010 were the result of non-unanimous jury recommendations of death.
The report finished with a number of quotes from notable personalities, leading with one taken from the address by Pope Francis when he spoke last September to a joint session of the United States Congress.
Let us remember the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Mt 7:12). …. The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.
This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty. I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes”
A conviction that is gradually being shared by an increasing number of people – at least in some countries – around the world.