Milestone: Majority of US States have halted use of death penalty

Amnesty International Releases Global Report Death Sentences and Executions in 2015

Photo credit: Amnesty International. Screen grab from "Death Sentences and Executions 2015," webpage.

According to a new report from Amnesty International, for the first time the majority of states in the U.S. have halted the use of the death penalty, either by abolishing it or by not carrying out an execution for ten years or more. The news is encouraging for anti-death penalty activists in the U.S. even as the number of executions globally climbed to its highest level since 1989 – 1,634 – according to the report.

Here in the US, both death penalty executions and death sentences hit a 25-year low. Pennsylvania was part of that trend as Governor Tom Wolf established a moratorium on executions on February 13th of this year. The Nebraska legislature voted to abolish the death penalty and on May 27th overrode the Governor’s veto of the bill. As global drug companies have moved to ban the use of their drugs for the purpose of execution, thanks to the persistent pressure from anti-death penalty activists, it’s become more difficult for any pro-death penalty state to make a case that their forms of execution do not rise to the level of “cruel and unusual punishment.”

But the reduction in executions in the U.S. cannot be attributed simply to the difficulty of acquiring execution drugs. Part of the drop in U.S. executions comes from a gradual change in the public’s support for the death penalty in the face of the growing number of moral issues raised by the number of people exonerated – before or after being put to death – in the face of new evidence.

That issue has hit close to home. According to Kathleen Lucas, Executive Director of Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, “Nick Yarris was sentenced to die by our state, and 21 years later, he was exonerated by DNA evidence. Five others were also sentenced to death here in PA and later exonerated.” As more Americans have come to understand, the “ultimate penalty” is also not carried out consistently.  As Lucas argues, “Add to that [wrongly convicted people on death row] a pattern of racial and economic bias, ineffective defense counsel, incentivized snitches, prosecutorial misconduct and junk science and you’ve got a process so flawed that it’s dangerous.”

Even as the use of the death penalty declined in the US, its most dangerous flaw remained apparent. Six death row prisoners from six different states were exonerated of all charges in 2015 Since 1973, a total of 156 inmates, including six in Pennsylvania, have been exonerated and freed from death row.

Amnesty International’s report, Death Sentences and Executions in 2015, reported two starkly divergent developments. Four countries abolished the death penalty last year which means that two-thirds of countries have now halted the institution in law or in practice. Despite this, there was a more than 50% spike in executions, with Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran responsible for nearly 90% of all executions recorded in 2015. China has not published any figures on the death penalty but available information indicates that thousands of people are executed and sentenced to death every year, making China remains the world’s top executioner.

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