UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: USA: Gradual death of a failed experiment

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17 May 2012
[International Secretariat]
Topic: Abolition of the Death Penalty

The death penalty experiment that began in the USA in 1976 when the US Supreme Court gave the green light to executions to resume under revised capital laws took another step towards its eventual demise this week when Connecticut became the 17th abolitionist state.

The governor signed the bill abolishing the death penalty into law on 25 April. Connecticut is the fourth US state in five years to legislate to abolish capital punishment. In addition, last November the Oregon governor imposed a moratorium on executions and called on the legislature there to reconsider the death penalty, and earlier this week the Secretary of State for California confirmed that repeal of California’s death penalty will be put to the popular vote at the election in November 2012. California accounts for one in five of the USA’s death row inmates; if repeal is approved, this would be the biggest chunk of the US death penalty edifice to fall in the past 40 years. In North Carolina, which accounted for five per cent of the USA’s executions in the decade from 1997, there have been no executions since 2006. While this court-ordered suspension in state killing comes in the context of litigation over lethal injection issues, the abolitionist cause in the state was done no harm when, on 20 April 2012, a state judge handed down a landmark ruling under North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act, overturning a death sentence on the grounds of systemic racial discrimination in jury selection in capital cases. There are 150 more cases pending under the Act. On the other side of the equation, however, executions continue apace in the USA and serve as a reminder that there is much more to do before the USA joins the majority of the world in abandoning this cruel punishment. There have been 17 executions so far this year and it is possible that in 2012, the combined judicial death toll since 1976 in just three states - Texas, Oklahoma and Virginia - will reach 700. And at the national level, while there has not been a federal execution for nearly a decade, the US administration is adding to its regular pursuit of death sentencing in domestic cases in federal court by moving towards its first capital trials by military commissions held at the US Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The imposition of the death penalty after such trials will violate international law as the military commissions do not meet international standards of fairness. Connecticut was one of 15 US states, in addition to the federal government, which resumed judicial killing after 1976 with the execution of a prisoner who had waived his appeals, a socalled “volunteer”. This phenomenon - which accounts for more than 10 per cent of executions since 1976 - occurred again on 20 April 2012 with the lethal injection of a “volunteer” in Delaware. In a new report, Amnesty International welcomes abolition in Connecticut (while noting that it is not retroactive and leaves 11 men on death row); looks back on the Delaware execution, setting it alongside the decision by the Oregon governor five months earlier to prevent the sexecution of a prisoner who had waived his appeals and to impose a moratorium in Oregon; reflects on the most recent execution in Ohio, the first there in six months after a federal judge overseeing litigation on the state’s lethal injection protocol refused to issue a stay despite his clear disquiet with the state’s past conduct during executions; examines the state court decision issued under the Racial Justice Act in North Carolina; and draws attention to the failure of the US federal authorities to work for abolition. 27 April 2012 AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL PRESS RELEASE

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