The death penalty in decline

The number of countries that execute criminals is dropping. Is capital punishment on the way out?

Public approval in the U.S. for the death penalty has reportedly dropped and more states are scrapping it altogether.
(Image credit: Mark Jenkinson/CORBIS)

How many countries have the death penalty?

Capital punishment laws are on the books in 91 countries, but only 23 of them carried out any executions last year. The U.S. executed 46 people last year, and 37 so far this year — more than any other country, except for the dictatorships of China, North Korea, Iran, and Yemen. In most parts of the modern world, the practice appears to be in steep decline. Since 1976, a total of 123 countries have effectively abolished the death penalty as a barbaric legacy of the past. All signs point to an unmistakable downward trend, says Mario Marazziti, co-founder of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty. "There is worldwide growth of a new moral standard of decency and of respect for human rights," he said, "even the rights and lives of those who may have committed severe crimes."

Is that trend likely to extend to the U.S.?

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It already has, in parts of the country. Illinois scrapped the death penalty in March of this year, and New Jersey did so in 2007. Lawmakers in California, Connecticut, Florida, Ohio, and Maryland introduced legislation this year to abolish the death penalty in those states. A recent Gallup poll found that the U.S. public's approval of the death penalty had dropped by 19 percentage points over the past 17 years, and currently stands at 61 percent, the lowest level since 1972. And although 34 states retain capital punishment laws, only 11 states executed prisoners last year, down from 20 in 1999. In effect, the death penalty has become a regional practice: Texas, Oklahoma, and Virginia alone account for more than half of U.S. executions.

Why does the U.S. remain an outlier?

A majority of Americans continue to believe that capital punishment is the only way to deliver proportional justice to a murderer. "Someone who murders another human being can only be made to pay for his actions by forfeiting his own life,'' says death-penalty advocate Casey Carmical. "If the punishment for theft is imprisonment, then the punishment for murder must be exponentially more severe, because human life is infinitely more valuable than any material item.'' This view is largely rooted in the Bible and its "eye-for-an-eye'' ethos, which still exerts a powerful influence in parts of the U.S. where religious conservatives predominate. "Abolition has taken its firmest hold in post-Christian Europe, and has least support in the churchgoing United States," conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has written. "I attribute that to the fact that, for the believing Christian, death is no big deal. Intentionally killing an innocent person is a big deal."

Then why is support declining?

Mostly because DNA testing has revealed numerous cases of people sentenced to death for crimes they did not commit. At least 138 people on death row have been exonerated since 1973, and four convicts — three in Texas and one in Missouri — have had their innocence proven only after they were put to death. Last month, Georgia executed a man named Troy Davis, despite serious questions about the evidence in his murder case. The possibility that the government may mistakenly kill the innocent has changed the minds of many former death-penalty supporters. So have statistics showing that a convicted murderer is far more likely to be executed if he kills a white person rather than a black person. The high cost of capital punishment has also eaten away at support.

What do executions cost?

Executions themselves aren't expensive — the lethal injection used by Texas reportedly costs $86 a shot — but the cost of the many, protracted legal battles that precede an execution weighs on state budgets. Every death-penalty sentence goes through multiple appeals, and can take more than a decade to carry out. Each of the 13 executions California has carried out since 1978, a recent study found, cost taxpayers $308 million. Partly for that reason, a poll found this year that, for the first time, California voters favored life imprisonment without the possibility of parole over the death penalty.

Will the U.S. abolish the death penalty?

Current trends suggest that the number of states that execute prisoners will continue to dwindle. But with capital punishment still popular with voters, it is unlikely to disappear altogether unless the Supreme Court rules that it is "cruel and unusual punishment.'' Given the conservative makeup of the current Supreme Court, that is not likely for the foreseeable future. But even the current Supreme Court is demonstrating growing queasiness about the government's power to kill: The court ruled in 2002 that the Constitution forbids the execution of the mentally retarded. Three years later, it extended that protection to prisoners younger than 18. The mounting evidence that capital punishment is imposed arbitrarily — and sometimes on the innocent — "will eat away at the court's toleration of execution,'' says University of California law professor Franklin Zimring. "The end game in the effort to purge the United States of the death penalty has already been launched."

A warden's change of heart

Three times in his 22-year career in Florida's corrections system, warden Ron McAndrew presided over an execution in the electric chair. Each time, his private doubts grew. During the third execution he witnessed, the condemned prisoner's head burst into flames, and McAndrew had to give the order to continue. "This is wrong," he decided. McAndrew, now a prison consultant, joined a small group of ex-wardens turned death penalty abolitionists, including Jeanne Woodford of San Quentin in California and Donald Cabana of Parchman Penitentiary in Mississippi. These wardens say that participating in the planned, cold-blooded killing of human beings has haunted them, and that it inflicts lasting trauma on corrections officers. "Many colleagues turned to drugs and alcohol from the pain of knowing a man died at their hands,'' McAndrew said. "The state dishonors us by putting us in this situation. This is premeditated, carefully thought-out ceremonial killing." He advocates "an alternative that doesn't lower us to the level of the killer: permanent imprisonment.''

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