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Neil Durkin

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Capital Punishment: Dying Out but Still Killing

Posted: 28/06/2013 00:00

Maryland Death Penalty

It's a loose comparison, but sometimes I think that people who get executed these days are like those killed right at the end of a war. Another day, another month ... and they might survived.

I say this because when you look at the figures for capital punishment around the world, you can see there's a strong trend toward abolition. It's happening year by year. Fifty years ago only nine countries in the world had abolished the death penalty; by 1977 it was 16; now 140 countries have abolished judicial killing in law or stopped it in practice.

Even in "pro-death penalty" countries, the number of sentences and executions is generally falling or the scope for imposing executions being reduced. For example, in China the number of crimes which might lead to a lethal injection or death by firing squad has been reduced from a reported 68 to 55 (still a staggeringly high number). Meanwhile, in the USA - another major user of capital punishment - individual states are peeling away from the majority on the issue, with six states scrapping the death penalty in the past six years - New Jersey and New York state (2007), New Mexico (2009), Illinois (2010), Connecticut (2012) and Maryland just last month.

Anyway, though in the last year or so there have been what Amnesty says is an "alarming" spike in executions in Iraq and a resumptions after considerable gaps in the use of the death penalty in Japan, Gambia, Pakistan and India, the underlying global trend is still clear and apparently fixed: state-sanctioned judicial killing is slowly dying out.

So to me there's a particular tragedy to the late nature of executions in this context. Last night's execution of Kimberly McCarthy in Texas was regrettable for many reasons (especially the apparent role of racial prejudice in her trial), but in five - ten, 20? - years' time there's a distinct possibility that we won't have people in Texas being strapped down to a lethal injection gurney and killed by technicians in a disgraceful pseudo-medical "procedure".

I know of course that of all US states Texas is a "hard case", one that may not go the way of national and international abolition in the immediate future. It's just reached the miserable milestone of 500 executions in 31 years, nearly five times higher than any other US state. The Lone Star State indeed. See Amnesty USA's Brian Evans on Texas' fatal addiction to the death penalty. However, with support for capital punishment in the USA falling, and controversy over lethal injection drugs and unfair trials growing, I think abolition even in Texas will come ....

But still, the machinery of death clanks on. Just this week, in addition to McCarthy's execution we've had four men hanged in Nigeria (and another facing death by firing squad imminently) and alarming reports that 117 people in Vietnam may face execution soon because of a recent law change (we're talking - in some cases - about death by lethal injection, using specially-produced drugs to execute prisoners for non-violent drugs offences). There's an urgent text campaign on Vietnam being run by Amnesty - see here.

So no, if you take an abolitionist view on the death penalty, there's no cause for complacency. According to Wikipedia, the last person to die (from the British Empire side at least) during World War One was a 25-year-old Canadian man called George Lawrence Price. He was shot by a German sniper in the Belgian town of Ville-sur-Haine at 10.58 on the morning of 11 November 1918. The Armistice came into force at 11am. A needless death then, just like everyone killed by the state in the cold-blooded and thoroughly repugnant business of administering capital punishment.

 
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