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Death Penalty Abolition Movement “To See Sunny Days”

Allison Frankel,
Staff Attorney,
ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project
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July 6, 2012

On July 3, U.N. delegates and NGO representatives from around the world gathered at the U.N. Headquarters in New York for an invigorating conference entitled “Moving Away From the Death Penalty – Lessons from National Experiences.” Panelists, ranging from high-level U.N. officials to state-level prosecutors to individuals directly impacted by the death penalty, shared their experiences with death penalty abolition and examined the human rights implications of the ultimate punishment.

Calm yet impassioned, Kirk Bloodsworth spoke of his eight years in a Maryland prison, two of them on death row, for a crime he did not commit. Bloodsworth was convicted in 1984 without a shred of physical evidence on the basis of mistaken eyewitness testimony and a mere three-hour jury deliberation. Bloodsworth, the first of the now 292 individuals in the U.S. to be exonerated by post-conviction DNA evidence, said “I am not here because the system worked. I am here because a series of miracles led to my exoneration.” Countless others are not so fortunate.

According to panelist Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, DNA evidence is only available in about five percent of cases. While a remarkable tool in the fight to exonerate the wrongfully convicted, post-conviction DNA testing cannot account for the untold number of individuals currently on America’s death row as a result of faulty forensic analysis, mistaken witness identifications, false testimony from jailhouse snitches, police and prosecutorial misconduct, and a host of other issues rife in our criminal justice system. Each one of those people should be enough of a reason to abolish the death penalty in the U.S. As Bloodsworth said, “If a country cannot ensure that they won’t kill an innocent citizen, they shouldn’t kill at all.”

The international community agrees. More than 150 nations currently prohibit the death penalty in law or in practice. The U.N. General Assembly called for a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty in 2007, and will take up the issue again later this year. The European Union requires abolition of the death penalty as a prerequisite for E.U. membership. Even international and hybrid criminal tribunals, tasked with delivering justice to some of the world’s most notorious alleged criminals for some of the most horrendous crimes known to humankind, prohibit the death penalty.

These nations recognize that, in the words of the Swiss delegate, “Nobody can be killed in the name of justice. The death penalty is not about justice, it is about vengeance.” It is also ineffective. There is no evidence that the death penalty serves as a deterrent. Moreover, despite assertions to the contrary, the death penalty is not reserved for “the worst of the worst.” As the ACLU’s Jamil Dakwar noted during the panel, this punishment is instead disproportionately inflicted on racial minorities and the poor. In Bloodsworth’s words, “Those who have the capital don’t get capital punishment.”

As the panel highlighted, advocacy and outreach by international and local human rights organizations in consort with widespread media attention have been integral components of the death penalty abolition movement. We at the ACLU have long advocated for death penalty abolition. Through litigation, legislation and advocacy in domestic and international forums, including a written submission to the UN Human Rights Council this June, the ACLU has urged the U.S. to comply with the Constitution and international human rights law by abolishing the death penalty. Important interim steps could include a fuller federal review of cases, implementation of measures to prevent police and prosecutor misconduct, and adequate funding for effective indigent defense. As a first step, the federal government should fulfill its commitment in the Universal Periodic Review process to study the racial disparities of the death penalty. The federal government could also place a moratorium on all federal death penalty trials and executions.

At the opening of the conference, the Prosecutor-General of Burundi stated that “sunny days” are ahead for the death penalty abolition movement. It is up to us to ensure that the United States does not stay behind in the dark.

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