Written by Matt Cherry, executive director, Death Penalty Focus
August 13 marks an important anniversary in the U.K. that will go largely unnoticed in the U.S. Exactly 50 years ago, on August 13, 1964, Britain conducted its last ever executions.
Why should this matter to the U.S.? It matters because that half century represents the size of the gap between the U.S., which still deliberately kills prisoners, and its closest allies, who have abolished capital punishment.
In that half century, the number of nations without capital punishment has grown to include every country in the West — except the U.S. Unfortunately, most Americans are unaware how out of step the U.S. is with the rest of the West. They think deliberately killing prisoners is normal. They don’t realize that the vast majority of nations in the world have abandoned the death penalty.
All 47 countries in the Council of Europe have abolished capital punishment — not just the liberal democracies of Western Europe, but also the more authoritarian states such as Russia and Turkey. In fact, the Council of Europe and the European Union are so opposed to the death penalty that it’s one of their top foreign policy goals.
But it’s not just Europe that has ended executions. In the Americas — North, South and Central — every single country has abandoned the death penalty, except the United States. The U.S. is the very last western country that thinks that killing prisoners is an acceptable government policy.
Last year only about one in ten countries carried out any executions at all. And of those 22 execution nations only eight killed ten or more prisoners. Those eight are: China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, USA, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen. It’s not a group of nations that the U.S. should want to belong to.
But most Americans don’t realize the company they keep when they execute prisoners. They don’t know that every two years the United Nations General Assembly votes in favor of a global moratorium on the death penalty. They don’t know that while the vast majority of the world’s governments vote to end executions, the U.S. joins with China, Saudi Arabia and Iran to vote to keep their death chambers running.
There has been some progress in the United States. In the last twenty years support for the death penalty in the U.S. has dropped from its highest ever level of 80 percent to 61 percent now. Even more significantly, polls now show that when given a choice between the death penalty and life without parole, the majority of Americans (52 percent) say that life should be the ultimate punishment allowed by the courts, with just 42 percent preferring the death penalty.
This progress has been matched by changes in the law. Six U.S. states in the last seven years have abolished the death penalty. In the past three years, a further three states have imposed moratoriums on all executions. The courts have also added restrictions to the use of the death penalty. In 2002, the Supreme Court outlawed executing people with mental retardation, and in 2005 it outlawed the execution of people for crimes committed before they were 18.
Yet despite this gradual progress, the U.S. is still more than 50 years behind the U.K. Since the U.K. last hanged two prisoners on August 13, 1964, the U.S. has hanged, gassed, electrocuted, shot and poisoned to death 1,407 people. The U.S. has more than 3,000 men and women on death row waiting to be executed, while the rest of the West have none. Death row does not exist in any other western country.
Unlike the other top execution nations, the U.S. is a democracy. We are free to stop the killing of our fellow citizens in our name. But we have to speak up. The U.S. will not conduct its last execution until we, the people, take action to end the death penalty. Only then can we close the gap between the U.S. and the rest of the West.
To find out more about this issue, or to contribute your perspective, or to spread the word, go to www.50yearswithoutdeath.org.
Matt Cherry is executive director of Death Penalty Focus. He was born and raised in Britain but has spent most of his adult life in the U.S. working for human rights.
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