Capital punishment is still with us as a stain upon mankind passed down from the dark pages of history. It is an unjust and loveless measure left over from a more barbaric past. Over the centuries, the peoples of the world have witnessed killings at the hands of states, princes, kings, pharaohs and the priests of the Inquisition. In the 21st century, however, the time has now come for modern legal institutions to abandon this irreversible sanction.
Today, death penalty has been abolished by 102 U.N. member countries. Seven countries still apply death penalty only for crimes committed in wartime, while another 50 have abandoned it in practice for at least ten years. Thirty-seven countries still use it both in law and practice. Of these 37, only the U.S., Japan, Taiwan and Singapore are industrialized countries. Apart from Belarus, no European country applies death penalty.
In 2014, there were 1,652 executions across the world, more than 1,000 of which were committed by communist China.1 Five hundred prisoners were executed in Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Sudan, Yemen or North Korea.
One significant country with no proper place in this sinister picture is the U.S. Thirty-one American states still carry out death penalty, principally Texas, Oklahoma and Georgia. Over the last 40 years, 1,422 people have been put to death in the U.S. as a whole while another 3,000 are still waiting on death row. The U.S., the leader of the modern Western world in so many areas, must treat its people with greater affection.
American history is full of shameful episodes on this subject. Twenty thousand people have been executed since the country was founded. The new states that came into being following the expansion of the U.S. towards the west in particular applied capital punishment on a wide scale. Due to a period of lawlessness in the Wild West, death penalty was enforced for many crimes, such as robbery, rape, murder and plunder. As the lawlessness increased, judges became ever more ruthless. Death penalty became used, not to provide justice, but simply to ensure order in those towns. At the same time, lynchings were a part of daily life in southern states as well. Between 1882 and 1920, 4,742 people were hanged or lynched without trial. Of these, 3,345 were African Americans hanged, burned or beaten to death in appalling acts of violence after the Civil War.
By now, the 21st century, this lynch-mob mentality should long since have come to an end. Punishment should no longer be a vehicle for revenge to bring people to heel, but should be aimed at ensuring justice and rehabilitating criminals, rather than killing them.
In addition, capital punishment has varied depending on the time, the communities and cultures involved, and socioeconomic status. Many crimes that used to be punished by death have long since disappeared in modern society. It is therefore improper to claim that any crime deserves to be punished by death. The courts of the Inquisition in the Middle Ages condemned tens of thousands of people to be burned to death on the basis of false confessions extracted through torture. Even in more recent times, just 300 years ago, 24 people were condemned to death for witchcraft in the U.S. state of Massachusetts. Yet such crimes are no longer covered by the penal law at all.
Court proceedings are also generally complex and intended to reach a given conclusion. Many convictions are based on debatable and equivocal evidence and techniques of judicial review change over time. The FBI has determined that the results of its own inquiries were false in 90% of 3,000 cases dating back before 2000 that it re-investigated. The jury system is another aspect that is quite liable to error. Death sentences awarded may be relative and vary depending on the personal prejudices of the members of the jury, the way they are brought up, ethnic identities, gender and age.
Death sentences are also becoming increasingly racist in the U.S. Although African Americans make up only 12% of the population, they represent 41% of those on death row. Statistics show that death penalty is more easily enforced if the condemned person is black. Death penalty is also enforced in an unjust manner against the poor, minorities and members of ethnic and religious communities.
This unjust punishment, that allows no scope for "repentance" or "self-education," is not something for which amends can be made by saying, "We have made a terrible mistake." One hundred fifty-six people condemned to death have subsequently been found to be innocent and released since 1973. The majority of these people spent decades in prison for no reason. It is barbaric for the state to murder an innocent man. It puts the state on a moral par with murderers.
The idea that capital punishment lowers crime rates is also completely false. There has been no rise in the homicide rate in states in which death penalty has been abolished. In a poll of criminologists in 2009, 88% of respondents said that they did not think that death penalty actually prevented killings.
It is believed that about 5% of convicts in the U.S. are entirely innocent. This means that 10,000 people are wrongly convicted every year. Another piece of research shows that 4.1% of people condemned to death are innocent. That same research shows that 340 innocent people have been put to death since 1973.
The "Innocence Project" instituted in 1992 has to date secured the release of 329 wrongly convicted people. Eighteen of those were on death row. Twenty-eight of those released had pleaded guilty in order to avoid a harsher sentence. Putting people on death row due to judicial or technical errors clearly results in irreversible errors and injustice. Obviously, death penalty cannot be rectified at a later date when the person concerned is deceased.
The decrease in the enforcement of the death penalty in the U.S. has made some segments of society uneasy. While 98 people were put to death in the U.S. in 1999, that figure fell to only 19 in 2014. Nonetheless, governors who do not put death sentences on their agenda are often harshly criticized for being "soft on crime," and officials responsible for the death chambers complain about the way they are increasingly being used less. Seventy percent of the public still approves of capital punishment.
Yet the U.S. should be a role model to the world in terms of efforts to abolish capital punishment. Politicians and judicial institutions must act responsibly, and capital punishment must cease to be an institutionally recognized measure. The death penalty is no way to seek retribution. Since people are prone to make mistakes it is inherently impossible to completely eliminate the possibility of innocent people being put to death. The execution of a single innocent person is nothing less than state-sanctioned homicide.
Adnan Oktar's piece on Pravda.ru: