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U.S./Europe: Opinions Poles Apart On Capital Punishment

  • Don Hill

Most of the advanced countries of the world -- with Japan and the U.S. prominent exceptions -- have abolished the death penalty. Since Ukraine ended executions last year, the human-rights committee of the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly has focused its efforts on reforming the death penalty in both Japan and the U.S. RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill examines the divide between Europe's attitude toward capital punishment and that of the U.S.

Prague, 26 May (RFE/RL) -- The human-rights committee of the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly has recently set out to reform what it considers two major human-rights violators -- Japan and the United States.

Both countries are admitted to the deliberations of the Parliamentary Assembly as official observers. Both continue to apply the death penalty as an acceptable punishment for major law violators. But the European Human Rights Convention -- one of the basic documents of the 41-nation Council of Europe -- outlaws all capital punishment. And since Ukraine -- the last council member-state to conduct official executions -- finally said it had ended capital punishment last year, the assembly has turned its attention outside Europe.

Renate Wohlwend, the assembly's human-rights committee vice chairman, tells RFE/RL that a delegation from the council is planning a trip to Japan to urge abolition of executions. She says a U.S. trip may follow, but probably not during the current presidential election campaign.

How does Wohlwend explain the huge gap between U.S. law and practice on capital punishment and that of Europe and most of the world's developed countries? It's a human-rights matter, she says:

"In the Council of Europe, they are convinced that the supreme human right would be the right to life. [Another point might be] that Americans are not yet as much in the future as Europeans are concerning human rights."

The U.S. Supreme Court rescinded 23 years ago a nationwide prohibition of the death penalty. The action freed each of the country's 50 states to decide for itself about executions. Since then, the states have executed more than 600 people convicted of crimes. The state of Texas alone has executed 217, three of them this week. More than one-third of those executed nationwide were blacks (35 percent), while blacks barely make up one-eighth (13 percent) of the total U.S. population.

Defenders of capital punishment most often speak of victims' rights -- the right, for example, of the bereaved family of a murder victim to know that the murderer has paid the ultimate price. Death penalty advocates say also that execution is the best deterrent, because a dead murderer cannot repeat the crime.

In the words of political scientist John McAdams of Marquette University: "If we execute murderers and there is in fact no deterrent effect, we have killed a bunch of murderers. If we fail to execute murderers, and doing so would in fact have deterred other murders, we have allowed the killing of a bunch of innocent victims. I would much rather risk the former."

But the director of the capital punishment project of the American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU -- a civil-rights action group -- says the death penalty issue is complicated by questions of justice and fairness. Diann Rust-Tierney puts it this way:

"[Capital punishment] is not being applied now [in the U.S.] without regard to race, which violates our constitution. And at this point, there are so many problems with regard to even making sure we have the right person that that [that is, the uncertainty] fundamentally violates the rights of the individual."

U.S. capital-punishment abolitionists say that several developments indicate that the American public increasingly is uncomfortable with execution of criminals. Recent U.S. polls show that more than 60 percent of U.S. citizens favor the death penalty in major crimes. Advocates of its abolition call this a favorable indicator because the percentage is lower than in previous years.

In the U.S. state of Illinois, Governor George Ryan recently suspended the death sentence, saying he will not reinstate it until provided with 100-percent guarantees that no innocent person will be executed. Authorities in the high-execution states of Texas, Virginia, Arizona, and Missouri say they are having trouble finding disinterested citizens that the law requires to be witnesses at executions.

The state of New Hampshire's legislature voted earlier this year to abolish the death penalty. But this week, New Hampshire Governor Jeanne Shaheen vetoed the abolitionist bill -- even though in recent years her state has not carried out any executions.

The ACLU's Rust-Tierney says the U.S. trend is toward ultimate abolition:

"I think the public's view of the death penalty is changing. I think that the courts in this instance are likely to follow the public. And I think that the public ultimately -- when they come to see how this thing works -- will reject it."

Three-quarters-of-a-century ago (1924), perhaps the most famous defense lawyer in U. S. history, Clarence Darrow, made an eloquent and oft-cited plea for mercy for two young murderers. Darrow told the court:

"Your Honor stands between the past and the future. You may hang these boys; you may hang them by the neck until they are dead. But in doing it, you will turn your face toward the past. I am pleading for the future," Darrow went on. "I am pleading for a time when hatred and cruelty will not control the hearts of men. [A time] when we can learn by reason and judgment and understanding and faith that all life is worth saving, and that mercy is the highest attribute of man."