Editor’s Note: Jurist asked Christopher Hill, State Strategies Coordinator for the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project, to comment on Italy’s recent abolition of the death penalty. The following is his response.
Italy’s decision on March 3 to completely abolish capital punishment is yet more proof that the world is moving away from this ineffective and unjust system. There has not been an execution by a member of the Council of Europe in over 10 years, and 41 out of the 47 members of the Council of Europe have ratified Protocol No. 13 (PDF) to the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, which outlaws the use of the death penalty. Like many nations of the world, these 41 European nations recognize that the death penalty is a violation of human rights.
The United States is increasingly coming to that same realization. Although 36 states retain death penalty statutes, in many of the states these statutes are rarely used. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 80 percent of the executions in the United States are in southern states. New Hampshire has not executed anyone since 1939. New Jersey reinstated the death penalty in 1982 and abolished it in 2007 without ever sending anyone to the death chamber. Pennsylvania and Connecticut have executed only inmates who volunteered for execution by waiving their appeals. There is genuine hope for abolition in several states such as Montana and New Mexico. And according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there are fewer death sentences issued in the United States today than at any other time since capital punishment was reinstated in this country in 1976.
Although the United States has a long way to go to catch up with the rest of western civilized democracies, we are on the right course. When the Supreme Court of Nebraska ruled that its use of the electric chair was cruel and unusual punishment, Judge William Connolly wrote, “[w]e recognize the temptation to make the prisoner suffer, just as the prisoner made an innocent victim suffer. But it is the hallmark of a civilized society that we punish cruelty without practicing it.” As more nations and more states continue to recognize that the death penalty is an enormous waste of resources and an unjust, unfair and inhumane system, it has become apparent that we are well on our way to ridding the world of this cruelty.