Capital Punishment on Death Row

Executions Drop to 13-Year Low in U.S.

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By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, JAN. 7, 2008 (www.Zenit.org).- The international campaign to stop the death penalty had success last year with a nonbinding vote Dec. 18 by the U.N. General Assembly in favor of suspending executions.

"This is further evidence of a trend towards ultimately abolishing the death penalty," said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in a press release the day of the vote. Previous attempts to adopt a resolution asking for a moratorium, in 1994 and 1999, had failed.

The vote came at the end of a year when the death penalty is in decline in the United States. The day before the United Nations passed the resolution, New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine signed into law a bill outlawing the death penalty in the state.

The measure was more symbolic than anything else, given that New Jersey has not executed anyone since 1963, but it nevertheless received widespread coverage in the media. According to an Associated Press article Dec. 17, there are eight men on death row in New Jersey. Their sentences have now been commuted to life in prison.

The Death Penalty Information Center released its annual Year End Report on Dec. 19, in which it noted that executions have dropped to a 13-year low in the United States. Moreover, the number of death sentences handed down by courts has also dropped considerably in recent years.

Overall, according to the report, there were 42 executions in 2007. While official data are not yet available, the report put at 110 the new death sentences in 2007, the lowest number since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, and a 60% drop since 1999. According to the report as of Jan 1, 2007, there were 3,350 inmates on death row in the country.

Supreme Court

Notably, the executions carried out took place in a very limited number of states. In fact, 40 out of the 50 states did not carry out any executions last year. The vast majority -- 86% of the total -- of executions were in the South, with no less than 62% of the executions taking place in just one state, Texas.

The Death Penalty Information Center report also noted that the death penalty came under challenge, albeit unsuccessfully, in a number of states. The legislature in Nebraska came within one vote of abolition. In New Mexico, a bill to abolish the death penalty passed the House by a vote of 41-28, but fell just short in the Senate. In Montana, a similar bill passed the Senate by a vote of 27-22, but ultimately did not become law.

One of the major factors in the decline in executions last year was the de facto halt to executions after the Sept. 25 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to hear a challenge to the constitutionality of the mixture of chemicals used in lethal injections in Kentucky. The Supreme Court was scheduled to hear evidence on the case today.

The case, Baze v. Rees, centers on whether lethal injection amounts to cruel and unusual punishment and thus violates the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, explained a report on the issue published Dec. 19 by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

The report titled "An Impassioned Debate: An Overview of the Death Penalty in America" noted that the eventual ruling could be very significant, as lethal injection is the method of execution used by the federal government and by all but one of the 37 states with death penalty statutes.

The report also commented that opponents of the death penalty contend that it does not deter violent crime. They are also concerned about flaws in the criminal justice system, which could mean there is not an absolute certainty all those executed are actually guilty. In fact, the introduction of DNA testing resulted in the release of large numbers of death row inmates in the last 15 years.

According to the Pew Forum report there is declining support in public opinion polls for the death penalty, although a majority are still in favor. Numbers in favor reached a peak in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when as many as 80% of those polled were in favor of the death penalty. A Pew Forum poll in 2007 showed only 62% of those polled were in favor of capital punishment for people convicted of murder.

The Pew Forum report said that, since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, more than 1,000 inmates have been executed. Nevertheless, courts have imposed restrictions in recent years. In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that states could not execute mentally retarded offenders. In 2005, a further ruling barred the use of the death penalty for juvenile offenders.

China and Iran

While most media attention is focused on the death penalty in the United States, the number of those executed is much higher in some other countries. In China last year at least 1,010 people were executed by firing squad, reported the South China Morning Post, Jan. 3.

According to the article, Jiang Xingchang, a vice president of the Supreme People's Court, recently told the China Daily newspaper that in the future lethal injections would be used instead of the firing squad.

Opinions vary on the total number of executions in China. The South China Morning Post cited an estimate of about 10,000 people a year, by the New York-based group Human Rights Watch. By contrast, Amnesty International estimated there were at least 1,770 executions in 2005.

Iran also continues to carry out numerous executions. On Jan. 2 a total of 13 prisoners were put to death, according to an article the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera published the following day. The article cited reports that a total of 297 death sentences were carried out in Iran in 2007.

Japan also continues to execute prisoners, with three hangings on Dec. 7, reported the Associated Press the same day. The government normally carries out the executions in secret, and the December executions were the first time authorities published the names of those put to death.

According to the latest official data, 104 convicts remain on death row.

Secret executions

Even before the December deaths, last year saw a record number of executions in Japan, reported the London-based Times newspaper, Aug. 24. That day three prisoners were hanged, bringing to a total of 10 the hangings in the previous 10 months. According to the article, in keeping with Japanese practice, the prisoners were hanged in secret, without independent witnesses. The condemned men were told of their imminent deaths only the morning of their execution, and their relatives and lawyers were informed after the event.

Just before the U.N. vote, officials in Nigeria confirmed at least seven executions in recent years, reported the BBC, Dec. 17. The admission came after a Nigerian representative at the United Nations had said in November that the country had not carried out any capital punishment in recent years.

An interesting aspect of the death penalty debate is being played out in Italy, one of the countries most active in pressuring for the U.N. vote last December. After the U.N. vote Giuliano Ferrara, director of the newspaper Il Foglio kicked off a campaign to extend the death penalty moratorium to abortion.

In recent weeks the paper has promoted the idea that human-rights activists, in order to be coherent with the pro-life position inherent in death-penalty protests, should also be equally active against abortion. Whether human rights groups will take up the issue of the millions of human lives aborted each year remains to be seen.