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Revisiting Capital Punishment in the United States

The botched April 29 execution of Oklahoma inmate Clayton Lockett made headlines throughout the world, leading to appeals to either abolish capital punishment in the United States or revisit the methods used to execute by lethal injection (in this case, the nature of the drugs).

Since 1976 (after a brief suspension of the death penalty by the U.S. Supreme Court), over 1,000 people have been executed and over 3,000 are currently on death row.  Presently, there are only 18 U.S. states that have abolished the death penalty altogether.

U.S. President Barack Obama has asked Attorney General Eric Holder to look into the circumstances surrounding the execution in Oklahoma. However, there will likely be little change resulting from this initiative. Obama is not an abolitionist himself, and individual states have the upper hand on this issue.

Proponents for or against capital punishment weighed in on Sunday talk shows, such as “Meet the Press” and “This Week”. The views ranged from limiting the categories of murders subject to the death penalty to the use of drugs tested and approved to avoid future botched executions—not too encouraging for those who oppose capital punishment and want a wider debate.

In Canada, capital punishment was abolished in 1976. While the debate has resurfaced occasionally, the majority of our citizens remain comfortable with the decision to eliminate capital punishment. This being said, I am careful not to generalize about our practices and export them to other jurisdictions. However, avoiding conversation on the subject altogether is not a wise choice.

The Oklahoma incident deserves more than a passing discussion about the extent of the application of the death penalty and the methods employed. The question of abolition is a useful exercise for a healthy democracy to have. Is the death penalty really a deterrent against crime, as advocates claim? Are state-sponsored executions in the twenty-first century the only way to deal with violent crime?

Granted, the U.S. constitution does not prohibit the use of capital punishment, but it has, through various court decisions, circumscribed its use. So the debate falls squarely in the realm of politics, and rests ultimately with the people.

The U.S. is the only country in the Group of Eight (G8—comprised of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) that actively employs capital punishment. China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, and North Korea are considered, along with the U.S., the greatest users of state-sponsored executions--hardly the kind of select group Western democracies wish to be associated with.

In addition, when one takes a careful look at the American context, there is a disproportionate use of executions in red states (91 percent in Republican-controlled states), rather than in blue states (9 percent in Democrat- controlled states). Living in a conservative state clearly raises the stakes even higher in terms of the disparate number of executions that take place.

Probing further, one can observe that African-American and Hispanics are disproportionately affected by the death penalty. The Death Penalty Information Center indicates that 41.7 percent of people on death row are African Americans, who represent only 12 percent of the total U.S. population.

While support for capital punishment remains, the majority of Americans’ support of it has dropped significantly—down from a high of 80 percent in 1992 to 60 percent in 2012. With DNA testing available, fewer death penalty verdicts being handed out, and a reduction in violent crime, it is possible that generational change will lead Americans to revisit and even eliminate capital punishment. We have seen this latter phenomenon play itself out on issues like abortion, gay rights and the legalization of marijuana.

Over the years, we should be reminded that innocent people and severely mentally-disabled individuals have been victims of the death penalty. This alone represents sufficient grounds for a new look at capital punishment. While the courts and due process remain a safeguard, human error can still occur.  Police authorities and religious leaders have also begun to weigh in on this debate.

The Oklahoma case, therefore, represents an opportunity to ask once again if America should reconsider the death penalty and ask the tough questions: Is a life sentence without parole now more in line with today’s social values? Is it not time to adopt a more humane approach to deal with the subject of violent crime and its punishment, without compromising the safety and security of the innocent?

*John Parisella is the former Québec delegate general in New York and currently a visiting professor at the University of Montréal’s International Relations Center. He is also a Member of the Board of Directors of The Montreal Council on Foreign Relations.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Capital Punishment, United States, Death Penalty

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