Ahead of World Day against the Death Penalty on 10 October 2010, Amnesty International has urged the USA, the only country that carried out executions in the Americas in 2009, to end its use of this cruel and inhumane punishment.
Amnesty International’s Senior Director of International Law and Policy Widney Brown said:
“A clear majority of countries has rejected the death penalty. How can the USA claim leadership on human rights yet still commit judicial killings?
“The death penalty is cruel, degrading, ineffective and entirely incompatible with any concept of human dignity. Its use in the USA is marked by arbitrariness, discrimination and error.
“The abolition of the death penalty in the USA will be a very important moment in the movement towards eradication of this punishment globally - and it cannot come soon enough.”
More than 1,200 men and women have been put to death in the USA since executions resumed in 1977, after a decade without them. Three jurisdictions - Texas, Virginia, and Oklahoma - account for more than half of the country’s executions, representing geographic bias on a grand scale.
More than 130 prisoners have been released from death rows around the USA since 1976 after being found innocent - nine were freed in 2009 alone. Others have been put to death despite serious doubts over their guilt.
One case being highlighted by Amnesty is that of Troy Davis, a 41-year-old black man who has been on death row in the US state of Georgia for over 19 years. The authorities failed to produce a murder weapon or any physical evidence linking Davis to the crime, and seven of nine witnesses against him later recanted or changed their initial testimonies in sworn affidavits. Davis - who has always protested his innocence - is at still at risk of execution and Amnesty supporters are petitioning the state authorities to ensure that this does not happen.
Studies have shown that race plays a part in who receives the death penalty in the USA, with murders involving white victims more likely to result in death sentences than those involving black victims.
Widney Brown said:“Race, geography, electoral politics, local finances, jury composition, and the quality of legal representation are all problematic factors in capital cases in the USA. Being tried for a capital crime is like taking part in a lethal lottery, and it should have no place in any justice system.”
Meanwhile, Amnesty pointed out that there is no proof that the death penalty deters violent crime more effectively than imprisonment. Widney Brown added:
“It is indefensible to continue executing people, particularly knowing that innocent people have been sentenced to death. The USA needs to join the abolitionist majority in the world.”
Although more than 1,000 executions have been carried out in the USA since 1993, there are signs that public and political support for this punishment is waning.
New Mexico and New Jersey have abolished the death penalty in the past two years, and the annual number of death sentences has dropped by two thirds from its peak in the 1990s. In the past decade, the US Supreme Court has abolished the death penalty for offenders who were under 18 at the time of the crime or who have “mental retardation”.
On Monday 11 October Amnesty will publish a new death penalty education pack (“A Matter of Life and Death”), with an event in a south London school featuring Richard Hughes, the drummer from the rock band Keane. In 2009 Richard Hughes, who is an active campaigner against the death penalty, visited Troy Davis on death row in the USA and a petition for
Troy Davis can be signed online.
The 2010 World Day Against the Death Penalty will focus on the use of the death penalty in the USA. Each year 10 October marks the start of a series of campaign events which culminates on 30 November with the illumination of symbolic buildings in more than 1,000 cities around the world, to commemorate the first time that the death penalty was abolished - in Tuscany in 1786.
The death penalty in the USA can be applied at state and federal level. Currently 15 out of the 50 US states and the District of Columbia (Washington DC) are abolitionist in law.