The U.S. Is Still Executing People, But the Anti-Death Penalty Movement Is Growing

The following is an excerpt from Mario Marazitti's new book, 13 Ways of Looking at the Death Penalty (Seven Stories Press, 2015). Reprinted with permission.


All over the globe—in some countries more than others, to be sure—people are realizing that the state-sponsored killing of people is not worthy of our common humanity.

When the Helsinki Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe took place in 1975—an early sign of the easing of the Cold War and the strengthening of international cooperation—just 16 countries had abolished the death penalty or committed to doing so.

By the time the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, there were 19 more. The most prominent example was France, where in 1981 François Mitterand and Robert Badinter, just elected president and minister of justice respectively, took the country directly from the use of the guillotine to a radical rejection of death as punishment, abolishing it in all cases.

The next year alone—1990—nine more countries abolished the death penalty. By 2000, 29 more countries had done so, including Albania, the states of the former Yugoslavia, and the Baltic republics.

Most recently (I write in late 2014), Latvia and Poland have ratified a binding international Covenant. One hundred and five of the 192 countries represented at the United Nations have abolished the death penalty by law, and another 43 have abolished it in practice—either through public moratoria or by the de facto moratorium that can be counted when a country declines to practice capital punishment for a decade or longer.

The countries that have abandoned the death penalty range from Gabon to Mongolia, from the United Kingdom to Argentina, from Cambodia to South Africa and to Russia. Some have outlawed the death penalty for the first time; others, having outlawed it decades ago, have taken resolutions never to adopt it in the future. The countries that still employ the death penalty—among them Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Somalia, China, Japan, and the United States—are seen as outliers and strange bedfellows.

By now, the Community of Sant’Egidio together with other groups including the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty have collected more than five million signatures. In 2007 the General Assembly of the UN made a resolution affirming, for the first time, that executions must be stopped and that capital punishment is wrong, and declaring the worldwide goal of ending the death penalty forever.

In many respects this movement has left the United States behind. In the US, thirty-four states still have the death penalty on the books—“retentionist,” we call them. Sixteen states have carried out a death sentence in the past three years. Seven states executed at least one person in 2013. Texas and California are the leaders: Texas carries out more executions than any other American state, while California sentences people to death in numbers that—thankfully—far outstrip its capacity and its will to execute them, with the effect that nearly 750 people currently languish on its death row. In July 2014, Federal Judge Cormac J. Carney wrote that lengthy and unpredictable delays have resulted in an arbitrary and unfair capital punishment system.

But public opinion in the United States is turning. NGOs, citizens’ groups, progressive politicians, and religious people have inspired popular opposition to the death penalty, so that many American cities and states are now anti-death-penalty zones: not just Cambridge and Berkeley, but New Jersey, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, and New Mexico. The New Hampshire Senate voted 12–12 on a bill to repeal the death penalty on April 17, 2014. In 2013, the majority of senators in Nebraska supported repealing the death penalty in a test vote, but the bill was later filibustered. In Delaware, the bill to repeal the death penalty is currently stalled, while Colorado’s bill was withdrawn in 2013. That same year, an attempt to reintroduce capital punishment in Massachusetts was defeated. It is fair to say that opposition to the death penalty in America is stronger now than at any point since the courts re-legalized it in 1976.

The movement for abolition has taken place largely out of the view of most Americans. Attention in the US has focused instead on narrow technical questions related to the death penalty: Is it legal? Is it discriminatory? Is it cost-effective? Is it a real deterrent to violent crime?

But the movement is strong, and it is getting stronger by the day.

Timeline: From Death to Life

The current turn against the death penalty is something truly profound—as epochal a change in the twenty-first century as the turn against slavery in the nineteenth, or the turn against child labor in the twentieth. The times they are a-changin’—and it seems possible that capital punishment, like slavery and child labor, will eventually be consigned to history.

1351: In Britain, the Treason Act defines high treason and petty treason in law; high treason is a capital crime, punishable by death.

1533: “The vice of buggerie,” or sodomy, is made a capital crime in Britain.

Circa 1540: Under Henry VIII, there are eleven capital crimes, including high treason, petty treason, rape, piracy, arson, and murder.

1542: Witchcraft is declared a felony punishable by death in Britain.

1608: First recorded execution (for treason) in the British American colonies takes place.

1671: In Britain, the Coventry Act makes it a capital crime to intentionally maim or wound another.

1682: Pennsylvania limits crimes punishable by death to treason and murder.

1699: Shoplifting to the value of five shillings or more is deemed a capital crime in Britain.

1718: In Britain, the Transportation Act allows the courts to sentence convicted criminals to be “transported” to America for seven years.

1764: Italian jurist Cesare Beccaria, age twenty-six, publishes Dei delitti e delle Pene (On Crimes and Punishments), the first major European legal text to call for the abolition of the death penalty. “It seems absurd to me,” says Beccaria, “ that the laws . . . which execrate and punish homicide, should themselves commit one, and that to deter citizens from murder they should order a public murder.”

1786: Tuscany becomes the first modern state to abolish the death penalty and torture on November 30.

1787: The newly framed United States Constitution provides for the death penalty in both the Fifth and Eighth Amendments. Founding Father Benjamin Rush (who has read Beccaria) opposes this.

1789: In Britain, Catherine Murphy, alias Bowman, convicted of high treason, is burned at the stake, the last such execution in the UK.

1791: The first bill to abolish the death penalty is presented in France on May 30.

1791: The French penal code, which provides for execution by guillotine, is formally adopted on October 6.

1795: The death penalty is abolished in France for a single day—a day of general peace on October 26, at the revolution’s end.

1810: Napoleon reinstates the death penalty in France on February 12.

1820: the last execution by hanging followed by decapitation is performed in Britain on May 1.

1822: William Reading is hanged for shoplifting, the last time that crime is so punished in Britain.

1830: Venezuela, under Simón Bolívar, becomes an independent state and ceases performing executions.

1833–1835: In the US, public executions, declared overly cruel, are replaced by private hangings in many states.

1832–1837: In Britain, Sir Robert Peel’s government introduces various bills to reduce the number of capital crimes. Shoplifting, as well as sheep-, cattle-, and horse-stealing are removed from the capital crimes list in 1832, followed by several other crimes in the next five years.

1835: In the last executions in Britain for sodomy, James Pratt and John Smith are hanged at Newgate.

1837: In Britain, Old Bailey judges are empowered to commute death sentences for crimes other than murder.

1843: Rev. George Barrel Cheever and anti-slavery crusader John O’Sullivan lead debates against the death penalty in New York.

1845: The first national death penalty abolition society, the American Society for the Abolition of Capital Punishment, is founded in the US.

1846: Michigan becomes the first US state to abolish the death penalty for all crimes except treason.

1848: San Marino, a tiny independent state within Italy, bans the death penalty for civil crimes.

1852: Rhode Island becomes the first US state to abolish the death penalty for all crimes, including treason.

1863: Venezuela bans the death penalty for all crimes.

1868: Great Britain outlaws public hanging, requiring executions to be performed behind prison walls.

1877: Costa Rica bans the death penalty for all crimes.

1887–1903: Thomas Edison demonstrates the power of electricity by electrocuting animals.

1890: In New York, convicted murderer William Kemmler becomes the first person to be executed by electrocution on August 6.

1908: Great Britain outlaws the execution of children under the age of sixteen.

1924: The US’s first gas chamber is installed in Nevada, on the idea that death by asphyxiation is more humane than by hanging, firing squad, or electrocution.

1933: Great Britain prohibits the death sentence for persons who were under eighteen when they committed their crimes.

1936: On August 14, Rainey Bethea is hanged in Owensboro, Kentucky, before a crowd of twenty thousand people—the last person in the US to be executed in public.

1939: Eugen Weidmann is executed by guillotine, the last public execution in France; the event was captured on film. It can be seen today on YouTube.

1946: On January 4, Theodore Schurch becomes the last person in Britain hanged for offenses under the Treachery Act of 1940.

1948: The British House of Commons votes to suspend capital punishment for five years; the House of Lords overturns the decision.

1949–1953: The Royal Commission on Capital Punishment is convened in London.

1953: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg are executed in the electric chair at Sing Sing prison in upstate New York, the first US civilians to be convicted and put to death for espionage.

1957: British Parliament passes the Homicide Act, limiting the death penalty to five categories of murder.

1960: Anthony Miller is the last teenager to be hanged in the UK. He is nineteen years old.

1965: Capital punishment for murder is abolished in the United Kingdom; treason, piracy with violence, and arson in Royal Dockyards remain capital crimes.

1966: Wong Kai-Kei is the last person to be put to death in Hong Kong. When Hong Kong is incorporated in the People’s Republic of China, it declines to restore the death penalty, which is in widespread use in China.

1969: On December 18, Parliament confirms the abolition of capital punishment for murder.

1972: The US Supreme Court rules 5–4 in Furman v. Georgia that the death penalty is unconstitutional as administered in the United States, overturning six hundred cases and instituting a de facto moratorium on executions. All five justices concur in the judgment that the death penalty is applied unfairly and arbitrarily in the US. Two of the justices, William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall, declare the death penalty unconstitutional in any form.

1974: In the US, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops publicly opposes the death penalty.

1976: The US Supreme Court, in Gregg v. Georgia, reaffirms the constitutionality of the death penalty on the grounds that state executions, if properly conducted, do not constitute a form of the “cruel and unusual punishment” prohibited by the Eighth Amendment.

1977: Gary Gilmore is executed by firing squad in Utah on January 17, the first person to be executed in the US in almost ten years. The de facto moratorium on capital punishment ends.

1980: The American Medical Association starts to discourage participation of physicians in executions on the grounds that doctors’ “powers are dedicated to the preservation of human life, not to the service of death.”

1982: The first execution by lethal injection is carried out in Huntsville, Texas, on December 2.

1987: Michel Radelet and Hugo Bedau publish a groundbreaking study in the Stanford Law Review, documenting 350 cases of persons convicted for capital crimes in the United States between 1900 and 1985 who were later found to be innocent.

1993: Kirk Bloodsworth, on death row in Maryland, is released from prison after being exonerated through DNA testing—the first such exoneration.

1995: Djibouti, Mauritius, South Africa, and Spain abolish the death penalty for all crimes.

1996: In Delaware on January 25, Bill Bailey is the last person executed by hanging in the US.

1996: Belgium abolishes the death penalty for all crimes.

1996: John Martin Scripps, in Singapore, is the last Briton to be hanged for murder.

1997: Nepal and Poland abolish the death penalty for all crimes; Bolivia abolishes the death penalty for ordinary crimes.

1998: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Estonia, Lithuania, and the United Kingdom abolish the death penalty for all crimes.

1999: Turkmenistan abolishes the death penalty for all crimes. Latvia abolishes it for ordinary crimes.

1999: German national Walter LaGrand is executed in a state gas chamber in Arizona, the last person to be put to death by asphyxiation in the US.

2000: Ivory Coast, Malta, and Ukraine abolish the death penalty for all crimes.

2001: Greece abolishes the death penalty for all crimes. Chile abolishes it for ordinary crimes.

2002: Cyprus, Serbia, and East Timor abolish the death penalty for all crimes.

2002: By a 6–3 majority, the US Supreme Court rules the execution of intellectually disabled offenders unconstitutional.

2004: Bhutan, Samoa, Senegal, and Turkey abolish the death penalty for all crimes.

2005: Death sentences for offenders younger than eighteen are ruled unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment.

2005: Mexico and Moldova abolish the death penalty in all cases.

2006: In China, the Supreme People’s Court affirms that capital sentences imposed by regional and local courts must be reviewed by the Supreme Court. This policy reduces executions in China by nearly 30 percent.

2006: Georgia, Montenegro, and the Philippines abolish the death penalty for all crimes.

2007: Albania, Kyrgyzstan, and Rwanda abolish the death penalty for all crimes.

2007: New Jersey abolishes the death penalty, the first US state to do so by legislative action since capital punishment’s reinstatement as constitutional in 1976.

2007: On December 18, the United Nations General Assembly passes a resolution calling for a universal moratorium on the death penalty.

2008: China replaces the firing squad with lethal injection as its chief method of execution.

2008: Uzbekistan abolishes the death penalty for all crimes.

2008: In New York State the moratorium against executions established by law in 2004 becomes a definitive ban on the death penalty, and the state’s death row is dismantled.

2009: The death penalty is abolished in New Mexico.

2009: On December 8, Ohio becomes the first state to perform executions using a single drug, sodium thiopental.

2011: In Illinois, the state legislature passes a bill calling for the abolition of the death penalty. Two months later, Governor Pat Quinn signs it, making Illinois the sixteenth abolitionist US state.

2011: China removes thirteen economic offenses from its list of capital crimes.

2012: Connecticut becomes the seventeenth US state to abolish the death penalty.

2013: Governor Martin O’Malley, who has backed efforts to repeal the death penalty since their legislative origins, signs the bill that makes Maryland the eighteenth abolitionist state in the US.

2013: Five hundredth recorded execution in Texas.

2014: Washington State Governor Jay Inslee suspends the death penalty.

2014: Tennessee passes a law allowing for execution by electric chair.

2014: On July 16, US federal judge Cormac J. Carney rules that California’s death penalty violates the US Constitution.

2014: On October 23, Pope Francis calls for the universal abolition of the death penalty.

2014: On November 21, the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly passes a new resolution calling for a worldwide moratorium on executions, with 114 votes in favor, thirty-six against, and thirty-four abstentions.

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