Elizabeth Zitrin [International Outreach and Communications Coordinator, Death Penalty Focus]: "The United States of America, proud of its commitment to fairness and justice, is being left behind on one of the most important international human rights issues of our age. We are way behind the curve. Surpassed in human rights by, most recently, Togo and Burundi. The US has a worse record on the essential human right to life than Turkmenistan, Ukraine, Liberia, Mexico and Rwanda. And those are only a few of the nations that have left us in the dust, just in this century so far.
In 2009, only 18 nations on the planet executed human beings. This great nation is in that small, shameful community. To be precise, we placed at number five, behind Saudi Arabia, but with more state killing of people than Yemen, Sudan, Viet Nam and Syria. China executed more than all other nations combined last year, but they're just the leader of a club we should not be proud to belong to.
We're in bad company on death sentences too, ranking number six among nations in 2009. On this horrific scale, we place behind Iraq, Pakistan, Egypt and Afghanistan, just edged out by Sri Lanka, but ahead of Algeria, Malaysia, Bangladesh and the 139 nations of the world that have abolished the death penalty in law or practice.
One hundred thirty-nine. It's an important number for Americans to consider as we decide just how slow off the mark we want to be in deciding to join 47 of the 48 nations of Europe (only Belarus is dragging its feet), including all 27 in the European Union; how late to the party hosted by Eleanor Roosevelt, who championed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights over 60 years ago.
One hundred thirty-nine is also the number of people exonerated from death row in the United States since 1976. The death penalty is not only wrong — it's dead wrong, riddled with error – fatal error – and does not keep us any safer, and costs an astronomical amount of money over and above the cost of permanent imprisonment, or life without the possibility of parole.
Positive trends within the US are showing the way, however. Although US executions were up in 2009, there were many fewer than 10 years ago. And death sentences were down in 2009, even in Texas and Virginia. Almost 90% of US executions in 2009 were in the South, and over half of those were in Texas. New Mexico became the 15th abolitionist state in 2009, and a total of 11 states considered abolition proposals. And of the 35 states with the death penalty still available, only 11 executed people in 2009.
So, we have both international and home-grown examples of leadership in human rights. Public opinion in the US slightly favors permanent imprisonment over death, and recent research in California shows that about 75% favor life over death if the life sentence includes working on behalf of the victims' families. This trend and the weight of history favors abandoning this inhumane and ineffective punishment. The United States — all of the United States — should get on board."
Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.