The global debate on the death penalty

The global debate on the death penalty

By Sandra Babcock
Human Rights Spring 2007 Vol 34 No 2


The debate over capital punishment in the United States–be it in the courts, in state legislatures, or on nationally televised talk shows–is always fraught with emotion. The themes have changed little over the last two or three hundred years.

Does it deter crime?

If not, is it necessary to satisfy society’s desire for retribution against those who commit unspeakably violent crimes?

Is it worth the cost? Are murderers capable of redemption?

Should states take the lives of their own citizens?

Are current methods of execution humane?

Is there too great a risk of executing the innocent?

We are not alone in this debate. Others around the world–judges, legislators, and ordinary citizens–have struggled to reconcile calls for retribution with evidence that the death penalty does not deter crime.

They have argued about whether the death penalty is a cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. They have weighed its costs against the need for an effective police force, schools, and social services for the indigent. National leaders have engaged in these discussions while facing rising crime rates and popular support for capital punishment.

Yet, while the United States has thus far rejected appeals to abolish the death penalty or adopt a moratorium, other nations have–increasingly and seemingly inexorably–decided to
do away with capital punishment.

Indeed, the gap between the United States and the rest of the world on this issue is growing year by year.

There are now at least 129 nations that are either de facto or de jure abolitionist.

The international trend toward abolition reflects a shift in the death penalty paradigm. Whereas the death penalty was once viewed as a matter of domestic penal policy, now it is seen as a human rights issue.

Racial and Geographic Disparities

Arbitrariness in capital sentencing was one of the factors that led the Supreme Court to strike down existing state death penalty laws in Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972). Four years later, in Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976), the Court’s decision to uphold the newly revised laws was based on its determination that the statutes minimized the risk of arbitrary sentencing by channeling the discretion of capital juries.

But thirty years later, factors such as race and geography continue to lead to great disparities
in capital sentencing. These disparities have led to a different sort of arbitrariness, one that may not be consistent with international norms.

Studies have repeatedly shown that race matters when determining who is sentenced to death.

A 2006 study confirmed that defendants’ skin color and facial features play a critical role in capital sentencing. And over the last twenty years, social scientists have repeatedly observed that capital defendants are much more likely to be sentenced to death for homicides involving white victims.

As the community of nations continues to debate the pros and cons of capital punishment, the United States should take a seat at the table, listen, and learn.

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