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The Right to Life Denied: Death Penalty Violates the Constitution and International Law

Avinash Samarth,
ACLU National Security Project
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September 29, 2011

Yesterday, in Warsaw, Poland, Jamil Dakwar of the ACLU Human Rights Program delivered a statement to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) addressing the continued use of capital punishment in the United States.

The OSCE is the world’s largest security-oriented intergovernmental group. The 56 countries that make up the organization’s membership include the United States, Russia and Canada, along with every European nation. The United States and Belarus are the only two countries in the OSCE that still practice state executions. Since 2009, Belarus has executed 6 people, while the United States has executed 135. In fact, our frequency of executions is matched only by Saudi Arabia, Yemen, North Korea, Iran, and China.

Coming just days after the unconscionable and unconstitutional execution of Troy Davis thrust the American death penalty into the international spotlight, the ACLU statement described the American death penalty as a “failed experiment,” citing chronic deficiencies, including arbitrariness, racial inequity, cruelty and wrongful convictions.

In the wake of Congressional limitations on habeas corpus (the right to challenge one’s incarceration), reversing a death sentence has become a nearly insurmountable task. The judge presiding over Davis’ hearing wrote that a death sentence reversal, under current U.S. law, would require an “extraordinarily high” standard of proof.

While millions all over the world were shocked by Davis’ execution last week, sadly, the execution of a prisoner who holds a significant likelihood of innocence is not an anomaly in the American system. As the ACLU statement noted, since 1973, several thousand people have been held on death row. During this time, at least 138 people have been released after retroactive findings of innocence. Investigations following executions are rare, but in at least one case there is substantial reason to believe that Texas executed an innocent man and is still trying to cover it up.

Currently, 3,251 people await execution in the United States. Just yesterday, the Obama administration referred its first death penalty case for trial by a Guantánamo military commission, which operates with significantly lower standards for proving a person guilty. The new “Guantánamo standards” allow the inclusion of evidence resulting from coercive interrogation techniques, while limiting the defense access to evidence and witnesses, and censoring the details of torture.

At the end of the statement, the ACLU called upon the United States to join its OSCE peers by instituting a moratorium on capital punishment. The American death penalty stands as a tragic rarity in the OSCE area. The United States cannot be considered a global leader on human rights, unless it changes its policy and joins the OSCE countries (and the majority of the world) in the abolition of capital punishment.

You can help. Go here to find out what you can do to help end the death penalty in your state.

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