Will the U.S. Ever Abolish the Death Penalty?

“We simply cannot say we live in a country that offers equal justice to all Americans when racial disparities plague the system by which our society imposes the ultimate punishment.”      – Senator Russ Feingold, 2003

Death Sentences

The Washington Post Map: How the world executed people in 2014

Examination of the death penalty in the U.S., is percolating (let’s hope it’s more like fomenting) to the surface again as the Boston jury voted on May 15 to execute Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Disagreeing with the verdict, more than 60% of Boston residence believe he should have been sentenced to life in prison instead. At age 21, he will be the youngest person on federal death row. There’s no question that the bombing was horrific and despicable. But how is murder for murder justifiable?

Over the decades, the needle has moved very little on how Americans feel about sentencing convicted criminals to death. Yet the international community, with a few notable exceptions, is increasingly embracing abolition of the death penalty. As the Map: How the world executed people in 2014 shows, the U.S. is in dubious – and downright frightful – company.

Why is it that U.S. public opinion so far behind our international neighbors?

Alba Morales (@albaHRW) wrote for HumanRightsWatch.org: “At last Monday’s Universal Periodic Review, a process through which each United Nations member country has its human rights record periodically reviewed by other member countries, 36 countries called for the US to reconsider its use of capital punishment. The US, a country that carried out among the greatest number of executions in 2014, is one of a dwindling number of countries that use the death penalty.” The U.S. delegation responded (and I’m paraphrasing), “No federal defendant has been killed in the last decade.” Of course, only 18 states and the District of Columbia have abolished the death penalty (Maine, Michigan and Wisconsin abolished it before the turn of the 19th century; Connecticut is the most recent, abolishing it in 2012). Oregon is one of the states with the death penalty, though Governor Kate Brown extended former Governor John Kitzhaber’s ban on executions.

Even if juries got it right 100% of the time (and they don’t), is capital punishment a just punishment for a crime? Most of the world and 33% of Americans don’t agree, instead believing the death penalty should be abolished. The UN General Assembly has endorsed a worldwide moratorium on the use of the death penalty. (According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 153 death-row inmates have been exonerated since 1973.)

Amnesty International, an advocacy group that opposes the death penalty, estimates that, after China, the largest number of executions occurred in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and the U.S. And the U.S. government wears the warrior’s mantle for international human rights…

According to the Gallup Poll, “International death penalty trends are unmistakably towards abolition. Use of the death penalty worldwide has continued to shrink, and use of the death penalty has also been increasingly curtailed in international law. Since 1990, an average of three countries each year have abolished the death penalty, and today over two-thirds of the world’s nations have ended capital punishment in law or practice.”

When asked why they favor the death penalty for persons convicted of murder, the reason most often stated is “An eye for an eye” (37%, a decline from 50% in 1991). “Save taxpayers money” and “They deserve it” were tied for the second most frequently stated reason (14%; “they deserve it” has gained momentum since 2001). The number one reason to oppose the death penalty by a large margin is: “Wrong to take a life” (40%). “Persons may be wrongly convicted” and “Punishment should be left to God” tied at 17%,

And when asked if they believe the death penalty is applied fairly or unfairly in the U.S., 51% said fairly, the same percentage as in 2000 (51% is the lowest percentage recorded; in the intervening years it got has high as 61% in 2005). There are slightly more death-row inmates that are white than black (as of 2009). However, in 1990 a report from the General Accounting Office concluded that “in 82 percent of the studies [reviewed], race of the victim was found to influence the likelihood of being charged with capital murder or receiving the death penalty, i.e. those who murdered whites were more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murdered blacks.” [Source: DeathPenalty.org]

What and how long will it take for the U.S. to abolish the death penalty? Let us know if your opinion about capital punishment has changed?

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