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Society and Community:
The Death Penalty
More on This Story:
Capital Punishment in the U.S. and the World

International trends have left the United States virtually alone among democracies to impose the death penalty with frequency. Recently, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's name has been removed from his Austrian hometown Graz' Web sites as well as from the city's main football stadium because of his recent refusal to grant clemency to a death row inmate. As of 2004, 84 countries had entirely abolished the death penalty — but according to Amnesty International nearly 4,000 people were executed that year, the second largest number in 25 years. In 2004 the United States ranked fourth in the number of executions carried out, behind China, Iran and Vietnam.

Capital punishment dates to ancient times — it is mentioned in one of the oldest existing set of laws, the Code of Hammurabi, dating from around 1750 B.C. In 1608 George Kendall was executed in Jamestown, Virginia Colony. Historians estimate that since that time more than 20,000 people have been put to death in the United States. The movement to abolish the death penalty dates from 18th century Enlightenment Europe. By the 1840s some U.S. states had begun to grant juries the discretion to impose life sentences rather than the death penalty. The number of executions in the U.S. dropped over time, as the number of capital offenses were reduced.

In the 1972 case of Furman v. Georgia, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that capital punishment was unconstitutional as then practiced, because it was applied disproportionately to certain classes of defendants, notably those who were black or poor. This ruling voided the federal and state death penalty laws. However it allowed state legislatures and Congress to write and enact new capital punishment laws.

In Gregg v. Georgia (1976), the Supreme Court allowed capital punishment to resume, ruling that the penalty did not constitute "cruel and unusual punishment" under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Today, 38 states and the federal government have reinstituted the death penalty. In a landmark 2005 case the Supreme Court ruled that applying the death penalty to offenders under the age of 18 is unconstitutionally cruel, ending the practice nationwide.

A debate continues in the United States over the fairness and efficacy of the death penalty. Some opponents continue to focus on the interpretation of "cruel and unusual" punishment. Others base their arguments on recent studies which show that race (of victim and murder both) still may play a statistically significant role in the imposition of the death penalty. Other opponents argued that the cost of mounting a capital case and the subsequent appeals is much more expensive than keeping a prisoner incarcerated for life. Additionally, the number of death row inmates exonerated by DNA evidence had called the safeguards of the system into question. Supporters have argued that the prospect of the penalty provides an effective deterrent to the crime of murder.

(Read more from both sides of the debate.)

Recent Death Penalty Legislation

DNA evidence exonerations have contributed to a lessening of support for the penalty in the United States. A 2005 Gallup poll showed that while a majority - 64% - of Americans still favored the death penalty, that is the lowest level in 27 years - down from a high of 80% in 1994. The sentence of death is being handed down with less frequency in the United States. In 2003 death sentences were at the lowest level since 1977. However, pro-penalty legislators have been working for a decade to speed up the process in U.S. Courts. The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (also known as AEDPA), passed following the Oklahoma City bombing, imposed a limit for all appeals relating to the right to writ of habeas corpus in capital cases and reduces the length of the appeal process by limiting the role of the federal courts. (A writ of habeas corpus is a judicial mandate to a prison official ordering that an inmate be brought to the court so it can be determined whether or not that person is imprisoned lawfully and whether or not he should be released from custody.) The law also created a barrier for the filing of second or successive petitions in federal court. (Read the law.)

In 2004 Congress passed the Innocence Protection Act, in part in response to exonerations of death row inmates due to advances in DNA technology. The Innocence Protection Act (IPA) is part of the larger Justice for All Act. The law authorizes funds to test a nationwide backlog of more than 300,000 rape kits and other crime scene evidence, funding for victims' services through grants to prosecutor and defender offices, access to post-conviction DNA testing for those serving time in prison or on death row for crimes they did not commit, and it authorizes grants to states to improve the quality of death penalty trials as well as assist families of murder victims. (Read the Justice for All Act.)

In 2005 the Senate debated legislation known as Habeas Reform: the Streamlined Procedures Act. This bill, which "Denies or restricts the jurisdiction of federal courts to hear habeas corpus petitions that: (1) have been procedurally barred in a state court; (2) are based upon errors in sentences or sentencing ruled as harmless error by a state court; (3) pertain to capital cases; or (4) challenge the exercise of a states's executive clemency or pardon power. {The bill also] Revises deadlines for filing appeals to federal courts of state habeas corpus decisions." Supporters say the bill will cut down on costly and frivolous appeals in death penalty cases. Opponents see the matter differently, as expressed by this editorial from THE WASHINGTON POST:

Congress has a novel response to the rash of prisoners over the past few years who have been exonerated of capital crimes after being tried and convicted: Keep similar cases out of court. Both chambers of the national legislature are quietly moving a particularly ugly piece of legislation designed to gut the legal means by which prisoners prove their innocence.
The bill will be reintroduced in the 2006 Congressional session. Read the bill, and Senate hearings.

Capital Punishment around the World

# of Executions 2004, China (appx):  3400
# of Executions 2004, Iran (appx):  159
# of Executions 2004, Vietnam (appx):  64
# of Executions 2004, United States:  59
# of counties which have abolished the death penalty for all crimes*:  86
# of counties abolished the death penalty for all but exceptional crimes  11
# of counties retain the death penalty in law but have not carried out any executions for the past 10 years:  25
# countries and territories retain and use the death penalty:**  74
Prisoners on death row in the U.S. 1984:  1,420
Prisoners on death row in the U.S. 2004:  3,315
Sources: U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Amnesty International

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Additional sources: U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, THE OXFORD COMPANION TO UNITED STATES HISTORY, Amnesty International.

*Countries whose laws do not provide for the death penalty for any crime:
Andorra, Angola, Armenia, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Bhutan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Cambodia, Canada, Cape Verde, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cote D'ivoire, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Djibouti, Dominican Republic,Ecuador, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany,Greece, Guinea-Bissau, Haiti, Honduras, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Kiribati, Liberia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macedonia (Former Yugoslav Republic), Malta, Marshall Islands, Mauritius, Mexico, Micronesia (Federated States), Moldova, Monaco, Mozambique, Namibia, Nepal, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Niue, Norway, Palau, Panama, Paraguay, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Samoa, San Marino, Sao Tome And Principe, Senegal, Serbia and Montenegro, Seychelles, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Solomon Islands, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Timor-Leste, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Tuvalu, Ukraine, United Kingdom, Uruguay, Vanuatu, Vatican City State, Venezuela

**Countries and territories which retain the death penalty for ordinary crimes:
Afghanistan, Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belarus, Belize, Botswana, Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, China, Comoros, Congo (Democratic Republic), Cuba, Dominica, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Guatemala, Guinea, Guyana, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jamaica, Japan, Jordan, Kazakstan, Korea (North), Korea (South), Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Lebanon, Lesotho, Libya, Malawi, Malaysia, Mongolia, Nigeria, Oman, Pakistan, Palestinian Authority, Philippines, Qatar, Rwanda, Saint Christopher & Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent & Grenadines, Saudi Arabia, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Somalia, Sudan, Swaziland, Syria, Taiwan, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Thailand, Trinidad and Tobago, Uganda, United Arab Emirates, United States Of America, Uzbekistan, Viet Nam, Yemen, Zambia, Zimbabwe

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