By Victoria Valenzuela / ScheerPost Staff Writer
On Oct. 10 — World Day Against the Death Penalty — activists, political leaders and lawyers unite in solidarity from around the world to call for the universal abolition of capital punishment.
Now in its 21st year, the day is meant to recognize the cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment and build on the momentum of the current global abolition movement, according to the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty. The death penalty is also disproportionately applied to people of color, as over half of the US death row population is Black or Latino, and typically subjects people on death row to harsher conditions than the general prison population. There are also many cases where innocent people have been sentenced to death, and in some cases, executed for crimes they did not commit.
World Day Against the Death Penalty was established in 2002, following the first World Congress at the European Parliament in France. Now the movement has grown to over 170 organizations in more than 60 countries in all regions of the world, especially in countries where there was still a death penalty.
Over the last 20 years abolition has spread worldwide. There are now 112 countries that have fully abolished the death penalty, and an additional 10 countries that have abolished it for ordinary crimes.
“World Day Against the Death Penalty is one of these special days during the year where we really push for more discussion about the reality of the use of the death penalty,” said Aurélie Plaçais, executive director of World Coalition Against the Death Penalty. “We really encourage all stakeholders, civil society, international organizations, such as the UN or regional organizations to take a strong stance against the death and to really use the day to speak about the reality of it.”
In 2022, recorded executions reached the highest point in five years, with 883 people known to have been executed across 20 countries, 40 percent for nonviolent offenses in violation of international human rights law. That year, five countries resumed executions and at least 2,016 new death sentences were imposed.
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The U.S. was ranked by Amnesty International as the fifth country to have persistently executed people in the past five years, right after China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. At the end of last year, there were 28,282 people known to be sentenced to death.
According to Amnesty International, complete figures for the death penalty in China, North Korea, and Vietnam were not included due to secrecy or difficulty identifying totals, meaning that the true global figure is far higher.
The trend within the United Nations is really to push on prohibition, says Plaçais. Last year, the UN had a record of 125 countries in favor of a global moratorium on the death penalty. In observance of World Day Against the Death Penalty, on Oct. 9, the UN called for the universal abolition of the death penalty.
In 2022, Kazakhstan, Papua New Guinea, Sierra Leone, and the Central African Republic abolished the death penalty completely. Equatorial Guinea and Zambia abolished the death penalty for “ordinary crimes.”
“The majority of the world has now fully abolished and every year there are new countries, especially in Africa now, that move towards full abolition of the death penalty in law,” Plaçais said. “There is really a growing trend towards abolition worldwide.”
Plaçais said that most people who are sentenced to the death penalty did not have access to justice or the means to defend themselves, as many come from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds and couldn’t afford a lawyer to fight the death penalty case. She also said and faced some form of intellectual or psychosocial disability, racial discrimination, gender based discrimination a migrant worker, a foreign national or as a minority within the country they were convicted in, and did not have access to justice or the means to defend themselves.
“The people who are sentenced to death and executed are not the worst criminals on Earth. They are the people who couldn’t afford a good lawyer. They are the people who have suffered discrimination … That is the reality of the death penalty today. The people who are sentenced to death are the ones that justice has failed.”
Abe Bonowitz, executive director of Death Penalty Action, said that the death penalty puts a focus on a tiny percentage of awful murders, but takes away resources from the kinds of things that would prevent murder from happening.
“The kind of common thread that you would find in the people that are getting executed in the United States is severe abuse, neglect and addiction at childhood … that’s almost 100% consistent if you look at the early development stages of those people,” Bonowitz said.
Not only do executions impact the person with the death sentence, but they also prolong the pain and create more expenditure and more suffering across the board, said Bonowitz. It also impacts the executed person’s family, the victim’s family and the people carrying out the execution. Bonowitz said that several of Death Penalty Action’s advisory board and one of their executive board members are former executioners who faced trauma by killing a defenseless person.
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.
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.”
Since 1973, there have been 195 people wrongly convicted and sentenced to the death penalty who were later exonerated in the US, an average of 3.94 people each year. Not everyone was able to be exonerated before a wrongful execution — there have been 25 posthumous exonerations where somebody was found innocent after their execution. Many death row exonerations take over a decade to win.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, “While on death row, those serving capital sentences are generally isolated from other prisoners, excluded from prison educational and employment programs, and sharply restricted in terms of visitation and exercise, spending as many as 23 hours a day alone in their cells in a state of constant uncertainty over when they will be executed. For some death-row prisoners, this isolation and anxiety results in a sharp deterioration in their health and mental status.”
As more than half of the death row population has been kept on the row for 18 years, many are kept in these conditions, and the death row population is aging significantly. According to DPIC, in 2019, there were 574 people over 60 years of age on death row.
There are 24 U.S. states that still have the death penalty, and three states including California, Oregon and Pennsylvania have moratoriums.
“We the United States hold ourselves up as a protector of human rights,” Bonowitz said. “Anybody that actually looks at our own human rights record understands that that’s a joke. … The death penalty probably violates the Eighth Amendment, the Sixth Amendment and the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution.”
Public support for abolition of the death penalty is increasing. In 2019, a poll by Gallup found that a clear majority of voters (60%) would rather have somebody convicted for murder serve life without parole rather than be sentenced to the death penalty.
Plaçais said that abolition is more likely to happen when everybody including civil society, government officials and the UN work together to show interest and a strong willingness to engage in the more effective criminal justice system.
“As a movement, we have recognized that there is a need for justice and a need for crime reduction, but we believe that it may happen only without the death penalty,” Plaçais said. “The death penalty is only perpetuating a cycle of violence and that it doesn’t solve crime at all. … We really care about crime and criminality and justice. But now there are more humane ways to do it.”
Victoria Valenzuela is an investigative reporter based in California covering issues in criminal justice. She currently oversees the criminal justice coverage as a reporter at ScheerPost. She is also a fellow with the Law and Justice Journalism Project. In the past, Valenzuela has also worked with ProPublica, BuzzFeed News, and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. She is completing graduate studies at the University of Southern California, where she formerly helped teach a class on the power and responsibility of the press.