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Capital Punishment in Perspective
December 28, 2007

In 2007 a number of state courts, and the Supreme Court decided to consider whether or not lethal injection constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Both Mississippi and Nevada's Supreme Courts have halted executions, and some court watchers believe that the Supreme Court's decision to hear a lethal injection case may cause additional states to at least temporarily halt executions. Currently, 38 states and the Federal government have capital statutes, but in 2006, only 14 states executed inmates — 53 inmates were executed, 7 fewer than in 2005.

Although the number of inmates executed and being sentenced to death in the United States has dropped in the last five years, that doesn't mean American's approval of the death penalty necessarily has waned. Gallup's annual update on Americans' attitudes toward crime shows no diminution in Americans' strong support for the death penalty in cases of murder — 69% — "generally in line with the level of support that Gallup has measured since 1999. (When the alternative "life imprisonment, with absolutely no possibility of parole" is offered support for the death penalty drops to 47% to 54%.)

Capital Punishment Around the Globe

International trends have left the United States virtually alone among democracies to impose the death penalty with frequency. In 2007 the European Union unequivocally stated its opposition — hosting an international conference dedicated to its eradication. Indeed, 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 refusal to grant clemency to a death row inmate. As of 2006, 90 countries had entirely abolished the death penalty. According to Amnesty International at least 1,591 people were executed in 2006. (The total number for China is believed to be much higher than the 1,010 reported.) Amnesty notes that 91% of all known executions took place in China, Iran, Pakistan, Iraq, Sudan and the United States.

Capital Punishment in History

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.

Recent U.S. Legislation

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 addition to the court cases challenging lethal injection mentioned above — the growing number of death row exonerations from DNA evidence have caused a number of states to address evidence issues with new legislation and new mandatory procedures.

Published on December 28, 2007

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References and Reading:
"A long death row," THE ECONOMIST, May 30, 2007
THE ECONOMIST looks at "China's enthusiasm for elections" in the wake of the tainted food scandals.

Amnesty International: Capital Punishment
Amnesty International collects international numbers on capital punishment. Amnesty International is a member of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty (WCADP).

Bureau of Justice Statistics
Official statistics on capital punishment for 2006 from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. In 2006, 53 inmates were executed, 7 fewer than in 2005. At yearend 2005, 36 States and the Federal prison system held 3,254 prisoners under sentence of death, 66 fewer than at yearend 2004. The site also provides historical statistics from 1930.

"Capital punishment: A mixed picture" THE ECONOMIST, April 30, 2007
Statistical overview of capital punishment.

Clark Country Prosecuting Attorney 1000 plus death penalty links from the Clark County Prosecutor of Indiana. The site includes a statement by the prosecutor: "The inevitability of a mistake should not serve as grounds to eliminate the death penalty any more than the risk of having a fatal wreck should make automobiles illegal. At the same time, we should never ignore the risks of allowing the inmate to kill again."

Death Penalty Information Center: States
The Death Penalty Information Center's State by State feature maintains information on executions and death row inmates. (anti-death penalty)

"Debating the Death Penalty," NOW on PBS
Voices and resources from both sides of the death penalty debate.

"The European Union Is United Against Capital Punishment"
Text of the October 9, 2007 statement by EU president Josť Manuel Barroso and information about the conference "Europe against the Death Penalty." The European Union is unreservedly opposed to the use of capital punishment under all circumstances and has consistently called for the worldwide abolition of this punishment."

"Highlight of the week - Cruel and unusual punishment?" BBCNews, July 2006
The BBC takes a look at the practice of lethal injection in the light of new court challenges against the procedure in the United States.

This site, maintained by a victim's advocacy group, offers discussion of issues, news and polls and research studies and a state-by-state current legislation rundown.

"Revisiting Issue, U.N. Chief Clarifies Death-Penalty Stance," Warren Hoge, THE NEW YORK TIMES, January 12, 2007
"Mr. Ban, the mild-spoken former foreign minister of South Korea, made unaccustomed waves last Tuesday when he declined to criticize the death penalty applied to Saddam Hussein."

"States apart," THE ECONOMIST, September 3, 2007.
THE ECONOMIST contends "Americans' support for the death penalty is waning, one state at a time." The article provides state by state figures.


Also This Week:

Bill Moyers interviews best-selling historian Thomas Cahill in a far ranging interview that takes viewers from the Coliseum in Rome to death row in Texas and examines what our attitudes toward cruelty can tell us about who we are as Americans.

The story of Dominque Green, executed at 30 by the State of Texas and the subject of recent research by Thomas Cahill.

Bill Moyers sat down with Archbishop Tutu in 1999 discussing his chairmanship of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Watch Tutu's interview in entirety

Get facts and figures on the death penalty around the globe.

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