World Day against the Death Penalty to cast spotlight on USA: A learning curve, towards a 'more perfect world'

October 8, 2010

World Day against the Death Penalty to cast spotlight on USA: A learning curve, towards a 'more perfect world'

“The story of the United States of America is one guided by universal values shared the world over – that all are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights. In the United States, these values have grounded our institutions and motivated the determination of our citizens to come even closer to realizing these ideals. Our Founders, who proclaimed their ambition ‘to form a more perfect Union,’ bequeathed to us not a static condition but a perpetual aspiration and mission. We present our first Universal Periodic Review (UPR) report in the context of our commitment to help to build a world in which universal rights give strength and direction to the nations, partnerships, and institutions that can usher us toward a more perfect world”.10

The question for the USA to answer then is this: Is a world without the death penalty more perfect than one with it? If its answer is yes, there is no reason for delay, the authorities across the USA must stop executions and start working for abolition. If its answer is no, then the USA’s commitment to human rights is not what it says it is.

“The moral and political debate about capital punishment will continue, as it should”, wrote a federal judge in California last month.11So where is the USA on the death penalty learning curve? It is not where it was two decades ago, with enthusiasm for the death penalty apparently on the wane. The annual number of executions is down by around 50 per cent from its peak in the late 1990s. More tellingly perhaps, the number of death sentences passed each year has dropped by two thirds from their peak in the middle of that decade. In addition, over the past decade the US Supreme Court has ruled that “standards of decency” have evolved in the USA to the extent that the use of the death penalty against offenders with “mental retardation” or who were under 18 years old at the time of the crime was no longer constitutional.12These decisions were a long time coming, relative to law and policy in most of the rest of the world. The political branches of government in the USA have it within their power to act against the death penalty a lot more quickly. They should do so now.

The USA’s experiment with the death penalty over the past three and a half decades has revealed a capital justice system riddled with arbitrariness, discrimination and error. Indeed, the death penalty is more accurately described as a lethal lottery than the reliable winnowing out of the “worst of the worst” crimes and offenders its proponents claim. How much more has to be shown about the reality of the death penalty before a critical mass of officials in the USA recognizes that the country is engaging in the cruelly “pointless and needless extinction of life”?

On World Day against the Death Penalty, the USA should reflect on its growing isolation in an increasingly abolitionist world and how its continuing resort to judicial killing is impossible to square with its claim to be a progressive force for human rights in the world. Officials around the country should seize the opportunity presented by the general decline in death sentences and executions, and any growing recognition within the population at large of the futility of this punishment, to lead the USA away from the death penalty once and for all.