Death Penalty Update
Here & Abroad
by John Gettings
The United States' debate on the morality and efficacy of capital punishment reached an important juncture on June 29, 1972. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional because in some cases it violated the Eighth Amendment, which protects citizens from "cruel and unusual punishment."
Beginning in 1967, while awaiting the Supreme Court ruling, and for the next nine years, the states stopped executions. In July of 1976, however, the Court upheld the death penalty as a legitimate punishment for certain crimes, opening the door for Congress and the state legislatures to make the death penalty an option again.
Today, while more than half of the countries in the world have abolished the death penalty in law or practice, the United States continues to use the death penalty in all but 12 states (plus the District of Columbia). From January 1977 through April 2001, 710 executions were carried out in this country: 545 by lethal injection, 149 by electrocution, 11 by gas chamber, three by hanging, and two by firing squad.
International Abolition and Use
According to Amnesty International, more than three countries a year on average have abolished the death penalty in law since 1976 or have gone from abolishing it for ordinary crimes to abolishing it for all crimes. Seventy-five countries and territories, including Australia, Germany, and Spain, refuse to impose the death penalty for any crime.
Of the countries that still permit the death penalty, only five use lethal injection, the most common method of execution in the United States. Seventy-three of those countries use firing squads, 58 hang condemned criminals, six stone them, and three still use beheading (Congo, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates).
There were 85 executions in the United States in 2000, down 13% from 1999 when executions were carried out at an unparalleled rate for this country. Ninety-eight people were executed in 20 states in 1999. That's one execution every 3.72 days, a rate substantially higher than 1997, when the U.S. executed 74 people, and 1998, when 68 criminals were executed. In fact, almost half (352) of the U.S.' post-1976 executions have taken place in the last five years.
Across this country and around the world, calls for moratoriums on the death penalty are gathering momentum. Moratoriums would temporarily suspend the death penalty while task forces discuss its fairness and future.
Illinois Gov. George Ryan got the moratorium initiative rolling in January 2000 when he made Illinois the first of 38 U.S. states with the death penalty to impose a moratorium, or halt, on executions after the state released 13 death row inmates who were wrongly convicted.
Internationally, the non-profit group Moratorium 2000 presented UN Secretary General Kofi Annan with a petition for a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty last December. The petition had more than 3.2 million signatures from 146 countries.
Annan took the opportunity to predict what he thinks the future holds for capital punishment around the world.
"The forfeiture of life is too absolute, too irreversible, for one human being to inflict it on another, even when backed by legal process. And I believe that future generations, throughout the world, will come to agree."