By Victoria Valenzuela / ScheerPost Staff Writer
For 20 years, activists all over the world unify Oct. 10 in international solidarity to call for the end of capital punishment and prompt society, especially those in political power, to take action against the death penalty. It is a day to mobilize support and encourage political and general awareness of the world-wide movement to end capital punishment, according to the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty.
Some 70% of the world’s countries have outlawed the death penalty. The United Nations had also set standards for capital punishment in 1984 and five years later called for the abolition of the death penalty, declaring that: “…abolition of the death penalty contributes to enhancement of human dignity and progressive development of human rights…”
While many countries such as the United Kingdom, Canada, Philippines, France, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Congo, Armenia, all Latin American countries and many others have abolished the death penalty, the U.S. along with China, Saudi Arabia, North Korea and Egypt still practice capital punishment. In total there were 28,670 individuals known to be under a death sentence around the world at the end of 2021.
The death penalty in the U.S.
Since its inception with the 13 colonies, the U.S. continues the death penalty with 1,550 people executed since 1976 and 2,414 more people on death row awaiting execution. The U.S. death penalty has been known to disproportionately affect Black and Latino people, many of whom were innocent.
In the decision of Furman v. Georgia in 1972, following work done by the NAACP during the 1960s as the death penalty became known as a racial issue, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty constituted cruel and unusual punishment and violated the eighth ammendment. The Court also noted that the U.S. death penalty was applied in a way that disproportionately harmed minorities and the poor, making it unconstitutional and resulted in more than 630 death sentences being vacated.
Following the decision in Furman, some states chose to abolish the death penalty. With a de facto moratorium on capital punishment put in place, there were no executions for four years until it was overturned in Gregg v. Georgia in 1976 which held that the Georgia law was not “cruel and unusual” and therefore did not violate the eighth and fourteenth th amendments. Other states changed their death penalty guidelines to withstand constitutional scrutiny and address the arbitrary and discriminatory factors for death sentencing. There are 27 U.S. states that still carry out the death penalty. California, which currently has a moratorium on executions, has the largest death row population in the nation — 690 people — most of whom are Black (36%) and Latino (25%).
Race and the death penalty
Black defendants are still given disproportionate death penalty sentences and executions, as they make up 41% of the death row population nationwide despite only being 13% of the country’s population. Black and Latino defendants are more likely to be given a death penalty sentence when the victim was white, even if they are innocent. In 96% of states where there have been reviews of race and the death penalty, there was a pattern of “either race-of-victim or race-of-defendant discrimination, or both.”
The death penalty is also more often applied unfairly or wrongfuly to Black and Latino defendants. Out of 3,250 exonerations of wrongful convictions in the U.S. since 1989, 53% were Black and 12% were Latino, most of whom were charged for murders they did not commit. Of that total, 190 exonerations were from death row, with an average of 3.94 wrongfully convicted people on death row getting exonerated each year.
According to the National Registry of Exoneration’s report titled Race and Wrongful Convictions in the United States:
“Most innocent defendants who are convicted of crimes are not exonerated. Judging from the rate of false conviction among death sentences, at least several thousand defendants have been falsely convicted of murder in America in the past 40 years. Judging from the exonerations that have occurred, more than half of them were Black.”
In some cases, innocence is not proven until decades after the execution in the form of a posthumous pardon. From the Salem witch trials to more recent cases such as that of Cameron Todd Willingham, the death penalty has been known to kill innocent people who are not able to get exonerated before their execution. The youngest defendant to be executed in the U.S., George Stinney Jr. was found innocent and was exonerated 70 years after he was executed in 1944. When Stinney, a 14 years old Black boy from South Carolina, was executed, he was so young that he needed to use a bible as a booster seat because he was too small for the electric chair.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center:
“For every 8.2 people executed in the United States in the modern era of the death penalty, one person on death row has been exonerated.”
A poll conducted by Lake Research Partners in 2010 shows that 61% of people in the U.S. would chose an alternative method of punishment to the death penalty. While the poll indicated that 33% people believe in the death penalty, 39% favored life without parole plus restitution as a punishment instead.
Still, executions continue to be carried out in the U.S., with some scheduled as soon as Oct. 20. There are eight more executions scheduled to be carried out before the end of this year, 23 executions already scheduled for next year, and 18 more for 2024.
There is growing momentum in abolish the death penalty in the U.S.
Organizations such as the Death Penalty Information Center, Death Penalty Action, Death Penalty Focus, and World Coalition Against the Death Penalty all actively work towards the abolition of capital punishment through their research, petitions, media outreach and organizing to spread awareness about upcoming executions and harrowing facts about the death penalty. The Innocence Project is a pro bono law organization that works to exonerate innocent people from prison, many of whom are on death row, and advocates for fair legislation to prevent wrongful convictions. Witness to Innocence, an organization made by and for death row exonerees, does campaigns to spread awareness about wrongful convictions on death row.