INTERNATIONAL: United Nations Passes Death Penalty Moratorium Resolution With Record Support
On December 18, the United Nations voted to adopt a resolution calling for a global moratorium on the death penalty, with an eye toward abolition. A record high 117 countries voted in favor of the resolution. The United States was one of just 38 nations that opposed it, and 34 nations abstained. Two years ago, a similar resolution passed with 111 "yes" votes. This year's resolution also urged those countries that still carry out executions not to execute juveniles, pregnant women, or people with intellectual disabilities. Though the United States continues to vote against a moratorium resolution, use of capital punishment has declined significantly here, as it has abroad. In 2014, the U.S. had its lowest number of executions in 20 years, and the lowest number of death sentences in 40 years. When the UN was founded in 1945, only 8 of the 51 member nations had abolished the death penalty. Today, 95 of the 193 member nations have officially abolished the death penalty, and an additional 42 have abolished it in practice.
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INTERNATIONAL: European Perspective on America's Death Penalty
In an op-ed in the New York Times, Sylvie Kauffmann, of the French magazine Le Monde, described the interaction between Europe and the U.S. on the death penalty. She noted that Felix Rohatyn said the most controversial subject he faced as the American ambassador to France was the enormous opposition to the U.S. death penalty. She also noted the broad European refusal to have their drugs used in lethal injections. In a recent development, a German investmunt fund sold off its stock in an American drug company because the company planned to sell drugs to Alabama for executions. Kauffmann attributed the decline in the U.S. use of the death penalty to the proliferation of innocence cases and the shortage of lethal drugs.
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NEW VOICES: Pope Francis Calls for Abolition of Death Penalty
Pope Francis called for an end to capital punishment in an address on October 23 to the International Association on Penal Law. "It is impossible to imagine that states today cannot make use of another means than capital punishment to defend peoples' lives from an unjust aggressor," the Catholic leader said. He cited the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which says that the death penalty can be used only if it is the "only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor," and that modern alternatives for protecting society mean that "cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically nonexistent." Pope Francis said, "All Christians and people of good will are thus called today to struggle not only for abolition of the death penalty, whether it be legal or illegal and in all its forms, but also to improve prison conditions, out of respect for the human dignity of persons deprived of their liberty." In discussing a variety of criminal justice issues, he critiqued the tendency to focus solely on punishment, rather than addressing broader social issues.
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International Events Highlight Death Penalty Concerns
Two recent international gatherings emphasized concerns about the death penalty in the U.S. and around the world. On October 14, the Organization of American States hosted an address by the President of the International Institute of Human Rights, Jean-Paul Costa, focusing on the relatively few countries still practicing capital punishment in North and South America. On October 21, the Delegation of the European Union to the U.S. presented a panel discussion featuring DPIC's Executive Director, Richard Dieter (r.), along with other national organizations. The event was cosponsored by the Netherlands, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Panel members described the sharp decline in the use of the death penalty in the U.S. and future prospects for further change through legislation and court opinions. Among the issues discussed were the quality of representation in capital cases, changes in public opinion, and the effects of the EU's restrictions on drugs for lethal injections in the U.S.
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INTERNATIONAL: Philippines to Host International Conference with Focus on Capital Punishment
An international human rights conference with an emphasis on Asian cultural and religious heritage and a special focus on the death penalty will be held in Manila on October 27-28, 2014. Representatives from the Philippines, India, Japan, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Mongolia, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and the European Union are expected. The conference is being organized by the Department of Justice of the Philippines and the Community of Sant'Egidio, an international Catholic lay association. The event, the first of its kind in Asia, is titled "No justice without life" and is part of Sant'Egidio's "Cities for Life" campaign. President Benino Aquino of the Philippines will offer remarks to open the conference.
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International Community to Focus on Mental Illness and the Death Penalty
On October 10 many international organizations and countries are focusing on the use of the death penalty around the world. The emphasis this year is on mental health issues related to capital punishment, with groups advocating for a ban on the execution of individuals with serious mental illness or intellectual disabilities. People with intellectual disabilities are vulnerable to manipulation during interrogation and have difficulty assisting in their own defense. Mental health problems can be exacerbated by the extreme isolation on death row. Recently, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released a publication, "Moving Away from the Death Penalty: Arguments, Trends, and Perspectives," which also discussed international issues related to the death penalty. In a preface to the publication, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, "The death penalty has no place in the 21st century. Leaders across the globe must boldly step forward in favour of abolition. I recommend this book in particular to those States that have yet to abolish the death penalty. Together, let us end this cruel and inhumane practice."
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STUDIES: Innocence and the Death Penalty Around the World
A new report from The Death Penalty Project, "The Inevitability of Error," examines the risk of wrongful convictions in capital prosecutions through case studies from around the world. The report analyzes recent innocence cases in Japan, the U.S., Taiwan, and Sierra Leone, as well as older cases from the United Kingdom that encouraged abolition efforts there. Among the cases included are those of Iwao Hakamada, who was released after 47 years on death row in Japan, and Kirk Bloodsworth, the first person in the U.S. exonerated from death row by DNA evidence. The study recommends improvements to investigative and appellate procedures, but concludes, "This may, in theory, decrease the likelihood of wrongful convictions, but it will never eliminate it altogether....There is no perfect justice system - error is inevitable. Wherever the death penalty is imposed, there is always a risk that innocent people will be convicted and executed."
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INTERNATIONAL: German Officials Refuse to Cooperate in Possible Death Penalty Case
German officials are withholding significant evidence in a murder case involving U.S. servicemen because of Germany's opposition to the death penalty. Sean Oliver has been charged with the murder of another member of the U.S. military, Dmitry Chepusov, in Germany. The U.S. Air Force has jurisdiction over the case, but Germany is withholding cooperation unless the U.S. military agrees not to seek a death sentence. German police discovered the body and conducted the autopsy, and are now refusing to hand over several pieces of physical evidence. Germany abolished the death penalty in 1949 and authorities are banned by law from cooperating in foreign cases that could result in the death penalty. The victim's family is also opposing capital punishment for Oliver. Dennis Bushmitch, the victim's brother, said, “We are urging the Americans not to pursue the death penalty.” In 1985, the German government successfully fought extradition of a German citizen accused of two murders in Virginia until a decision was made not to seek a death sentence.
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INTERNATIONAL: Support for the Death Penalty Declines in Russia
A recent poll of 1,600 Russians found that only 52% support the death penalty, a sharp decline from 2002, when 73% said they supported it. Two years ago, 61% were in favor of capital punishment. Russia currently has a moratorium on the death penalty that was put in place in 1996 by President Yeltsin, shortly before Russia signed a relevant protocol of the European Convention on Human Rights. Russia's high court has ruled that even death sentences cannot be handed down. Hundreds of those on death row had their sentences commuted to life.
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China Rethinking the Death Penalty
According to a recent op-ed about China in the New York Times, the world leader in executions is having second thoughts about the death penalty. Liu Renwen, a legal scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the annual number of executions in China dropped by half from 2007 to 2011, as more offenders were given "suspended death sentences," which are generally reduced to life sentences. According to a 2008 poll in three provinces, public support for the death penalty is about the same in China (58%) as in the United States (60%), but China carries out an estimated 3,000 executions per year, many more than the U.S. (The U.S. ranks 5th in the world in the number of executions.) There is concern in China about the uneven application of the death penalty: 69% of respondents in the poll said they believed that poor offenders were more likely to be executed than rich ones, and 60% said they thought innocent people could be wrongfully convicted. China's Supreme People's Court recently overturned the death sentence of a woman who killed her husband after suffering years of domestic abuse, perhaps signaling a broader trend toward less use of capital punishment.
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