Today, October 10, is World Day against the Death Penalty. This year’s focus is “The Death Penalty Does Not Stop Drug Crimes.” The top five killers of capital punishment, executing more people than the rest of the world combined, are the United States, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and China. Almost two-thirds of countries worldwide, 140 in all, have abolished the death penalty, up from only 16 countries in 1977. Yet death sentences increased by over 500 last year from the year before: at least 2,466 people were sentenced to death in 2014. Actual executions dropped 22 percent to at least 607, not counting China which does not release its numbers of executions. Last year, 22 governments in 22 countries killed people, compared to 41 governments ten years ago.
Why the death penalty is wrong:
- Innocent people are executed.
- Capital punishment is extremely expensive.
- The death penalty prolongs suffering for the victim’s family as offenders may spend 20 or 30 years on death row.
- No proof exists that executions deter people from committing crimes.
- Whether defendants receive the death penalty is largely dependent on the quality of legal representation with poor people receiving the worst legal support.
- The race of both victims and defendants are primary factors in determining death sentences.
- Politics and geographic location of crimes are also important factors in determining death sentences.
- Death sentences deny the sanctity of life that religious groups support; capital punishment is immoral.
While the death penalty is decreasing worldwide, the number of executions for drug-related offenses increased in 2015. Of the 33 countries executing people for drug use or trafficking, 13 used this option in the past five years. For example, Indonesia used the firing squad to execute eight people for drug offenses in April 2015. There is no indication that the death penalty prevents drug consumption or drug trafficking.
Singapore had record numbers of drug seizures in 2012 despite the country being a leader in imposing the death penalty for this crime. Countries allowing the death penalty for drug-related offenses show evidence of coercion or torture to obtain confessions in China, Egypt, Indonesia, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, etc. Concerns for trial standards for drug-related crimes have been raised in Cuba, Iraq, Myanmar, North Korea and Syria, amongst other countries.
In the U.S., the death penalty is legal in 31 states, and governors in four of these states, including Oregon, have imposed a moratorium. Only 20 states where approximately one-third of the people in the U.S. live had held an execution in the past eight years.
Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court addressed the question of whether the use of inappropriate injections violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual suffering. The conservative majority ruled in Glossip v.Gross that executions would necessarily have some pain and therefore upheld the use of the injections. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote for the majority that the there was no identification of a “known and available alternative method of execution” that would carry a lesser risk of pain.
The case led to a wider discussion about the death penalty itself. Two of the four dissenting justices, Stephen G. Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, wrote dissents asking the court to examine whether the death penalty is actually constitutional, stating that it likely “violates the Eighth Amendment.” All four of these justices summarized their views from the bench. Justice Sonia Sotomayor rejected the court’s conclusion that prisoners must identify an “available alternative means by which the state may kill them.”
Another issue surrounding Glossip is that the convicted man might even be innocent. Richard Glossip’s life continues after three scheduled dates for execution because of a series of errors in Oklahoma. After the Supreme Court ruled in favor of executing him, the date was set for September 16, 2015. Pleas from around the country because of new evidence regarding his conviction resulted in a last-minute reprieve for two weeks.
Another last-minute reprieve on September 30, 2015 came when Mary Fallin and state Attorney General Scott Pruitt announced that they had gotten the wrong drug—potassium acetate instead of potassium chloride. Although a doctor and pharmacist claimed that the two drugs are interchangeable, the executed prisoner Charles Warner, who suffered great pain last January, received potassium acetate instead of the potassium chloride as the state originally claimed. Glossip’s new execution was set for November 6, 2015 but has been put off indefinitely until the completion of an investigation.
This year the Supreme Court has scheduled four capital punishment cases. On Tuesday, October 13, SCOTUS will hear arguments about the jury’s role in assigning capital punishment in Florida, the last state that does not require jurors to be unanimous in both explaining why a person is eligible and then recommending that sentence. The other forty-nine states and the federal government consider a unanimous verdict as the norm, A 2002 SCOTUS ruling in Ring v. Arizona attempted to move death sentencing from a judge to a jury, but Florida’s law gives juries only an advisory role in death penalty sentencing.
The current SCOTUS case, Hurst v. Florida, could reinterpret issues about not allowing judges to make the factual findings about “aggravating factors” and not requiring a unanimous jury vote for death sentences. In the case under consideration, Timothy Lee Hurst received a death sentence after the jury supported it in a vote of seven to five. Florida doesn’t even require a majority advisory vote for the death penalty if a majority of jurors agree that at least one aggravating factor exists. Florida judges are also not required to follow juries’ recommendations in death sentences.
Last week, the Supreme Court addressed two Kansas cases in which the state Supreme Court overturned the death sentences of three men because of confusing jury instructions. The sentence was set aside for another man because he was tried together with his brother instead of separately. A ruling could affect the future for six of the other nine prisoners on death row in Kansas because the same issue can be applied to their sentencing.
Another capital punishment case sent to the Supreme Court was declared “moot” last Friday because of “miscommunication.” Despite a filing to the Supreme Court before the execution, neither Virginia’s governor nor the attorney general notified the state Department of Corrections before Alfredo Prieto was declared dead after an injection of drugs purchased from Texas.
Before this year’s SCOTUS term began, Breyer discussed his views on the death penalty with MSNBC journalist Ari Melber, in an interview following the publication of Breyer’s ninth book, The Court and the World: American Law and the New Global Realities. Rachel Maddow’s discussion of the death penalty including parts of the interview is here, and the Breyer/Melber full interview is here.
During the past two decades, the difference in opinion about the death penalty has shrunk in half. Those opposing the practice have increased from 16 percent to 33 percent while those in favor have dropped from 80 percent to 63 percent. Maybe some of these people read the statistics that murder rates in New York and New Jersey decreased after these states repealed capital punishment.