On April 25, with a stroke of the governor's pen, Connecticut became the 17th U.S. state to abolish the death penalty - and the fifth state to do so in five years. This reflects a growing momentum to end capital punishment in the U.S., which is the only major industrialized Western nation that still claims for itself the "right" to kill its citizens. The death penalty has already been abolished in all European countries except for Belarus. In fact, today over two-thirds of the world's nations have ended capital punishment in law or practice. This global trend towards abolition of the death penalty reflects the growing awareness that there are alternative punishments that are effective and which do not involve state-sponsored killing.
By retaining the death penalty on a federal level and in many states, the U.S. finds itself aligned on this issue primarily with known hotbeds of human rights violations such as Afghanistan, China, Egypt, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan. This is the company we keep.
But there are better reasons to abolish the death penalty nationwide - and worldwide - than just following the trend.
Studies in several states have shown that the death penalty is applied in a discriminatory, arbitrary, and uneven manner, and is used disproportionately against racial minorities and the poor. For example, a 1998 study of death sentences in Philadelphia found that African-American defendants were almost four times more likely to receive the death penalty than were people of other ethnic origins who committed similar crimes. That's not justice, it's discrimination.
In addition to its biased application, the death penalty is demonstrably not a deterrent. According to Amnesty International, "FBI data shows that all 14 states without capital punishment in 2008 had homicide rates at or below the national rate."
Also, execution is irreversible, which is a huge problem, given so many cases of death row inmates who have been exonerated after conviction, based on DNA or other evidence. How many other innocent persons were not lucky enough to be proven innocent prior to their executions? We know of at least a few.
Some people argue that the death penalty is the only way to bring closure to a murder victim's family. But not all such families agree. In fact, so many families oppose the death penalty that some have formed organizations such as Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation and Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights, through which they actively work to abolish the death penalty. As noted on the latter organization's website, "MVFHR members have come in different ways and times to the understanding that the death penalty does not help us heal and is not the way to pursue justice for victims."
Amnesty International describes the death penalty as "the ultimate, irreversible denial of human rights."
And, for those of you who subscribe to a Judeo-Christian faith, consider the commandment that "thou shalt not kill." That commandment bears no caveat indicating that it's acceptable to kill a killer.
Clearly, the death penalty does not represent justice. It represents revenge - sometimes misdirected revenge.
Shouldn't we as a society be above that sort of thing?
Mary Shaw is a Philadelphia-based writer and activist. She is a former Philadelphia Area Coordinator for the Nobel-Prize-winning human rights group Amnesty International, and her views on politics, human rights, and social justice issues have appeared in numerous online forums and in newspapers and magazines worldwide. Note that the ideas expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Amnesty International or any other organization with which she may be associated. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org