On Monday, October 10, the 14th World Day Against the Death Penalty will raise awareness of the application of the death penalty for terrorism-related offenses with the goal of reducing the use of the death penalty. The United States and 64 other countries allow people to be sentenced to death for terrorism-related offenses.
The Advocates for Human Rights, with the assistance of pro bono attorneys, collaborates with members of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty to bring death penalty issues to the attention of the United Nations to advocate for change.
Jury selection began last week in the case of Dylann Roof, the self-identified white supremacist accused of murdering nine black worshippers at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in South Carolina last year. Roof was recently denied the opportunity to plead guilty and serve a life sentence for his crimes; the Department of Justice will instead seek the death penalty. In response, Roof’s lawyers have chosen to challenge the constitutionality of capital punishment head-on. Their decision to oppose the death penalty in court, citing the punishment as “a legally prohibited, arbitrary, cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by both the Fifth and Eighth Amendments,” follows the lead of similar influential cases that have taken place across the country in the past several years.
In the United States, the federal government has not carried out a death sentence in over a decade. The Death Penalty Information Center reports 2015 as having the lowest recorded number of executions in 25 years (28 people), as well as the lowest number of death sentence convictions in over 40 years (49 people). At the same time, public opposition to the death penalty is at the highest level it has been in several decades, marking steady progress toward abolition of the death penalty.
From the grass roots to the U.S. Supreme Court, individuals have increasingly vocalized disdain for the death penalty. The Black Lives Matter movement has recognized diminished public support for capital punishment and in its policy platform is demanding immediate action toward complete abolition. In response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision allowing states to continue to use the drug midazolam in executions, Justice Stephen G. Breyer authored a 46-page dissent, arguing that “it is highly likely that the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment].” The drug itself is linked to causing severe pain in the process of an execution, a point which prompted some Justices to question the constitutionality of the death sentence. In his dissent, Justice Breyer noted several flaws in the system of administering capital punishment: the execution of innocent people; frequently exonerations of individuals on death row; and the negative influence of politics and discrimination on the imposition of the death penalty in the criminal justice system.
Seven states have abolished the death penalty since 2007, bringing the current total to 20. (Californians will vote on November 8 to determine whether that state will join the list.) The most recent is Delaware, when its Supreme Court ruled that the state’s statute allowing judges to overrule a jury’s decision for a life sentence was a direct violation of the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution (the right to an impartial jury). In January of this year, the Supreme Court ruled similarly on Florida’s death penalty law. State by state, courts are ruling that major faults in our system of justice are in direct violation of basic rights recognized in the U.S. Constitution.
This recent trend of questioning the constitutionality of the death penalty reflects a growing awareness of defects within the criminal justice system. The system that exists today puts people with mentally illness to death, disproportionately executes black individuals convicted of murdering whites, and kills the innocent. Execution methods present a real risk of subjecting individuals to torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment. Moreover, research demonstrates that the death penalty does not deter future murders. In the words of Delaware’s Governor Markell: “the use of capital punishment is an instrument of imperfect justice that doesn’t make us any safer.”
Source: The Nation
Capital punishment endures because many still assume that it is appropriate or effective. But here is what the death penalty doesn’t do:
- preserve the constitutional rights to life and freedom from cruel and unusual punishment
- promote a belief in rehabilitation and reconciliation
- punish equitably, without discrimination based on race, socioeconomic status, or disability
- punish fairly, by ensuring that no innocent person is executed and by ensuring that all defendants can fully exercise their due process rights
- make progress toward addressing the root causes of crime in order to prevent heinous murders
- address the ideologies and beliefs that motivate hate crimes (such Dylann Roof’s)
- bring back victims of the crime
Dylann Roof must answer for his shocking crimes, and for the permanent damage he has inflicted on his victims and their families. We must recognize the powerful racial dynamics at work, acknowledging Roof’s racially based murders and his privileged status as a young white male in today’s criminal justice system. Yet, we should also recognize the significance of Roof’s lawyers challenging the constitutionality of the death penalty on a federal level. If the court decides that the death penalty violates the Constitution, not only will it mark significant progress toward ending state-sponsored murder, but our country may also find the motivation and political will to reform of a criminal justice system in desperate need of justice, and to bring that system in line with international human rights standards.
By Maggie Poulos, a student at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, majoring in International Studies with a minor in political science. During the summer of 2016, she was an intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program. She is interning with The Advocates’ Refugee & Immigrant Program during the academic year.
Click here to learn more about The Advocates for Human Rights’ work against the death penalty.