A learning curve, towards a ‘more perfect world’
World Day against the Death Penalty to cast spotlight on USA
The differences that exist between rich and poor, between good and bad prosecutions, between good and bad defence, between severe and lenient judges, between judges who favour capital punishment and those who do not, and the subjective attitudes that might be brought into play by factors such as race and class, may in similar ways affect any case that comes before the courts, and is almost certainly present to some degree in all court systems... Imperfection inherent in criminal trials means that error cannot be excluded… But death is different, and the question is, whether this is acceptable when the difference is between life and death
Constitutional Court of South Africa, 19951
For a clear majority of countries, the death penalty is a thing of the past. They have concluded either that it is unnecessary, or that it is incompatible with modern standards of justice, or both.
While today 139 countries have abolished capital punishment in law or practice, a handful of countries account for a majority of the world’s executions. One of them is the United States of America, where more than 1,000 prisoners have been put to death since 1993, a period in which more than 40 countries (including South Africa in 1997) have legislated to abolish the death penalty. This year the World Day against the Death Penalty – which falls on 10 October – will cast a spotlight on the USA’s continuing resort to judicial killing and activists will redouble calls on the authorities there to join the global abolitionist trend.
Another way of looking at this global trend is to view it as a “learning curve”.2As countries have learned about the realities of the death penalty – its ineffectiveness, its incompatibility with human rights, and its inescapable risk of irrevocable error – they have turned against it. Some have reached this realization earlier than others, and there have been occasional backward steps, but the trend is undeniably towards eradication of this cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment.
The USA is among the minority of countries that has bucked this positive trend. It resumed executions in 1977 after about a decade without them after the US Supreme Court ruled in Gregg v. Georgiathat new capital statutes passed by various US states also passed federal constitutional muster.3Over twelve hundred men and women have been put to death across the country since then, more than 40 of them this year.