A global view of America’s relationship with capital punishment

A photo of the revamped lethal injection room at San Quentin State Prison supplied by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

China. Iran. Saudi Arabia. Iraq. The United States of America.

What you just read is, according to Amnesty International, a list of the countries that executed the largest numbers of prisoners in 2014.

While the U.S. Supreme Court was making huge news last month with its decisions on Obamacare and same-sex marriage, it also issued a ruling on another hot-button issue: capital punishment. The question before the court was a narrow one, whether Oklahoma’s lethal injection procedure constituted cruel and unusual punishment. By a 5-4 vote, the court said no

But the opinions released June 28 reflected a bitter controversy within the court about capital punishment that coincides with polling indicating a decline in support for it among Americans.

The arguments for and against capital punishment (the mistakes, the question of deterrence, unequal application, etc.) are well established.

But the Amnesty report released earlier this year helps put that controversy into a global context.  Simply put, the United States is part of a relatively small minority of countries – 22 in 2014 — that still impose capital punishment. And it’s fair to say that many Americans wouldn’t normally choose the company the U.S. is keeping on that list. For a number of years now, the United States has been the only country in the Americas to execute anyone at all.

The office of the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, says 160 U.N. members have either abolished capital punishment or are not executing anyone. And Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says, “The death penalty has no place in the 21st century.” The European Union makes abolishing capital punishment a precondition for membership.

Amnesty, which keeps careful numbers on capital cases globally, acknowledges that in many countries, the figures are not public and it is hard to know how many people actually were executed. That is certainly true of China, which executes far more people than any other country. Amnesty thinks there were several thousand executions there last year, but China considers the figure a state secret. There were at least 289 in Iran, 90 in Saudi Arabia, 61 in Iraq and 35 in the U.S. 

The next five were Sudan (at least 23), Yemen (22), Egypt (15), Somalia (14) and Jordan (11). Also not very inspiring company.

While the number of known executions worldwide fell last year, substantially more people were actually sentenced to death, Amnesty says. That’s mostly due to large numbers in Nigeria and Egypt. Nigeria is battling the Boko Haram extremist group, and Egypt has been conducting mass trials of members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had formed the previously government. But death sentences and executions are not the same thing.

Just because you’ve banned or suspended capital punishment doesn’t mean your country is a paragon of virtue, of course. And in those that do conduct executions, not all cases are equally clear. Few Americans would probably go along with the decision of Iranian authorities last year to execute a woman who stabbed a man during a sexual assault

It’s also worth comparing the death sentence Dzhokar Tsarnaev received last month for the Boston Marathon bombings, which killed three people, with the sentence Norway imposed on right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik for a much deadlier act of terrorism – a bombing and shooting spree that killed 77 people in 2011. 

Breivik famously complained about bad video games in the prison where he is serving 21 years. If that term seems incredibly light by U.S. standards, it can be extended indefinitely if authorities determine that he still poses a threat to society.

Then, there was Indonesia’s decision to execute drug offenders in response to what its new president says is a “national emergency” of drug abuse. Eight – Nigerian, Brazilian and Australian citizens, as well as one Indonesian — were shot by a firing squad in late April  despite international appeals to spare their lives.

President Joko Widodo’s decision to go ahead with executions in drug cases appears politically popular with Indonesians.

But overall, capital punishment seems to be one of those issues where public attitudes don’t necessarily influence government policy.

Take these numbers from Russia. Russia suspended executions in the 1990s. However, a large majority still favored imposing capital punishment for a variety of offensives (The numbers are a few years old now, but are unlikely to have changed a great deal). The biggest percentage favored permitting execution in cases of sexual offenses against teenagers. Only about a quarter of those polled were in favor of keeping the moratorium or banning capital punishment altogether.

Then, there’s Britain, which hasn’t executed anyone for more than half a century – since 1964. 

Still, Amnesty International said, polls indicated that as recently as five years ago, a bare majority – 51 percent — favored the use of capital punishment. By last year, that figure had fallen to 45 percent. 

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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Dudley Sharp on 07/10/2015 - 02:04 pm.

    Mark, do you have a clue

    We’ll see.

    You wrote:

    The arguments for and against capital punishment (the mistakes, the question of deterrence, unequal application, etc.) are well established.

    1) It is claimed there are 154 “exonerated.

    REBUTTAL – Depending upon review, possibly 25-45 actual innocents, with confirmable evidence, have been discovered and released from death row, in the modern era, post Gregg v Georgia. That is about 0.4% and they were all released (1).

    Innocents are more at risk without the death penalty (2).

    There is no confirmable actual innocent executed in the modern death penalty period.

    2) It is claimed there is no deterrence:

    REBUTTAL – The evidence that the death penalty deters some is overwhelming. The evidence that the death penalty deters none does not exist. Life is preferred over death. Death is feared more than life. What we prefer more, deters less. What we fear more deters more. In three ways, the death penalty protects more innocent lives that does LWOP (2).

    3) It is claimed there is unequal application.



    Is There Class Disparity with Executions?



    1) The Innocent Frauds: Standard Anti Death Penalty Strategy

    2) The Death Penalty: Do Innocents Matter? A Review of All Innocence Issues

    • Submitted by Dan Hintz on 07/13/2015 - 11:41 pm.

      Cameron Todd Willingham

      There was no evidence whatsoever and he was put to death.


      I don’t know how you are defining actual innocence, but it America it is the state’s burden to prove guilt. And many people have been sentenced to death without that occurring.

      Contrary to your claim, the vast majority of studies have shown that the death penalty is not a deterrent.


      I don’t even know what to say about links to sources which are just blog posts you wrote somewhere else.

      • Submitted by Dudley Sharp on 07/15/2015 - 09:47 pm.

        Some Reality: Todd Willingham Texas Arson Case

        Arson, by Willingham, has never been excluded and can’t be.

        Why did Willingham speculate that a third party entered the house and caused the fire?

        How did (jailhouse snitch) Webb know that Willingham didn’t try to save the children? Because Willingham told him – it is the only way. Willingham didn’t confess to making no effort to save the children, until he told his parents, the day before his execution.

        How did Webb know that there was an X pattern on the children’s bedroom floor, where Willingham poured the accelerant? Because Willingham told him.

        Why was Willingham nervous that the investigators might find bruising on Amber’s, his 2 year old’s, neck? Because he choked her?

        Why did Willingham spread his British Sterling cologne on top of the fire spread? To cover up the finding of accelerant, which was found. That cologne, btw, has an accelerant in it.

        How was it that Amber was found In Willingham’s bed, face down, with the sheets pulled over her shoulders, with her feet burned? — the same bed that Willingham said he was taking a nap in.

        Willingham could have saved Amber, at any time. First, as they were in bed, together, he could have just picked her up and taken her out of the house. Secondly, the fire never entered that bedroom and there were several entrances into that bedroom, without going through the fire.

        Amber was rescued, alive, by firefighters, but later died at the hospital from smoke inhalation.

        Why is it that witnesses saw Willingham taking his belongings out of the house, while it was on fire, but he couldn’t save the children?

        It was impossible for Gov. Perry to stop the investigation. He only delayed it. After reading the Corsicana Fire Chief’s rebuttal to Beyler, as well as other’s, no one can blame him for such delay.

        See Willingham within

        The Innocent Frauds: Standard Anti Death Penalty Strategy

      • Submitted by Dudley Sharp on 07/15/2015 - 09:57 pm.

        Actual innocence

        It is pretty easy to define.

        It is a factually proven statement that the person had no involvement of the crime.

        What you are speaking of is a guilty or not guilty verdict.

        Everybody knows that actually innocent people have been found guilty and that actually guilty people have been found not guilty.

        That is not what this debate is about.

        Murderers either did it or they did not. A truism.

        We cannot execute legally innocent folks – that would be impossible, by definition.

        The concern is that we may execute an actually innocent person. That risk is measured by knowing how many actually innocent person have been sentenced to death row and how many of those did not get appellate relief.

        This covers those issues in detail, with a discussion with the person responsible for the innocent frauds.

        The “Innocent”, the “Exonerated” and Death Row

        An Open Fraud in the Death Penalty Debate: How Death Penalty Opponents Lie

        This is a look at how well destroyed the “EXONERATED” and/or “INNOCENTS” list is and how it has been so deceptively used by the anti death penalty movement.

      • Submitted by Dudley Sharp on 07/15/2015 - 10:03 pm.

        Of course the death penalty deters

        My guess is that you didn’t even read the criminology survey.

        Within this Survey, the response to question 12 finds that 92% of the criminologists agree that the death penalty may deter some.

        “Deterrence & the Death Penalty: A Reply to Radelet and Lacock



        OF COURSE THE DEATH PENALTY DETERS: A review of the debate
        99.7% of murderers tell us “Give me life, not execution”

        The Death Penalty: Do Innocents Matter? A Review of All Innocence Issues

  2. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 07/13/2015 - 07:43 am.

    Let the punishment fit the crime

    In an era when the Islamic State is beheading people in public for the crime of holding the wrong religious beliefs, we shouldn’t get too exercised because the U.S. is executing mass murderers only after the obligatory decades-long appeal process.

    In the U.S., at least, it’s a matter of justice for the victims, not rage at the perpetrator.

    • Submitted by Dan Hintz on 07/13/2015 - 11:44 pm.

      Islamic state

      I’d like to think that we are better than the Islamic State and even look forward to the U.S. joining the rest of the civilized world and doing away with capital punishment.

      • Submitted by Dudley Sharp on 07/15/2015 - 10:12 pm.


        The idea that some subjective definition of civilized countries or an objective description of industrialized countries matters in regard to the death penalty is nonsense.

        There are a lot of nasty countries that don’t have the death penalty, such as:

        countries on 1 of 3 Amnesty Intl death penalty abolitionist countries lists: Yugoslavia, Algeria , Burma, Mexico, Congo, Rwanda, Angola, Uzbekistan, Croatia, Togo, Tunisia, Senegal, Nicaragua,

        Some poorly industrialized and poorly civilized:

        Some of the countries from the AI death penalty retentionist list: Bahamas, Barbados, United States, Belize, India, Indonesia, Japan, Kuwait, South Korea, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Singapore, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and Grenadines;

        Some highly industrialized and very civilized.

        So what?



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