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Capital Punishment in the United States Explained

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In our Explainer series, Fair Punishment Project lawyers help unpackage some of the most complicated issues in the criminal justice system. We break down the problems behind the headlines - like bail, civil asset forfeiture, or the Brady doctrine - so that everyone can understand them. Wherever possible, we try to utilize the stories of those affected by the criminal justice system to show how these laws and principles should work, and how they often fail. We will update our Explainers monthly to keep them current. Read our updated explainer here.
To beat the clock on the expiration of its lethal injection drug supply, this past April, Arkansas tried to execute 8 men over 1 days. The stories told in frantic legal filings and clemency petitions revealed a deeply disturbing picture. Ledell Lee may have had an intellectual disability that rendered him constitutionally ineligible for the death penalty, but he had a spate of bad lawyers who failed to timely present evidence of this claim -…

America’s Place in the Executioners’ Club

'The Walls' Unit, Huntsville, Texas
'The Walls' Unit, Huntsville, Texas
What do Texas, Missouri, Georgia and Florida have in common with China, Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia? All are outliers in their continued use of the death penalty, which is being abandoned in most of the rest of the United States and the world.

Those four states were responsible for all but two of America’s 28 executions last year. Likewise, those four countries account for the overwhelming majority of global executions, according to a new report by Amnesty International. The report documented 1,634 executions globally in 2015, not counting China, which executes more people than all other countries combined, but provides little reliable information.

There are many more executions that are not included in Amnesty’s global count, which is restricted to “judicial” executions — those that result from a formal trial process, whether or not that process meets international standards of fairness — and excludes some secret executions and those where no trial took place.

The 1,634 state killings — almost nine in 10 occurred in Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia — represent a 50 percent increase over 2014. Explanations for the spike differ: Pakistan had not executed anyone since 2008, but reinstated the death penalty after the December 2014 terror attack on a military school in Peshawar that killed 132 children. Many of Pakistan’s 326 executions were for crimes other than terrorism.

Most of Iran’s 977 executions were for drug-related offenses, including trafficking more than 30 grams of heroin or cocaine. In Saudi Arabia, foreigners, including migrant workers, accounted for about half of the country’s documented executions, often for minor offenses like drug dealing. As in the United States, there is no evidence that the death penalty has reduced the incidence of capital crimes in these countries.

The good news is that outside of these few places, the death penalty is on the decline. In the United States, 18 states and the District of Columbia have abolished the death penalty, and 12 more have not executed anyone in nine years or longer. Last year the numbers of executions and death sentences nationwide were their lowest in decades.

Globally, four more countries abolished the death penalty in 2015, for a total of 102 countries — up from just 16 in 1977, when record-keeping began — while 38 more countries have not used the death penalty in at least 10 years. Amnesty considers these countries to have effectively abandoned the practice.

The consensus that the death penalty is both ineffective and barbaric is growing, but that consensus is fragile. In Hungary, which abolished the death penalty in 1990, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán responded last April to his country’s immigration crisis by saying that capital punishment “should be put on the agenda.”

Even though Mr. Orbán was swiftly rebuked across Europe, his comments are a reminder that the temptation among opportunistic politicians to bring back the death penalty is always there.

Source: The New York Times, The Editorial Board, April 11, 2016

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