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Europe: Western Political Leaders Condemn Capital Punishment (Part 2)

  • Jeremy Bransten

Politicians in Western Europe reached a consensus years ago that capital punishment should no longer serve as an instrument of criminal justice. Today, finding an advocate of the death penalty among mainstream European parties is next to impossible. This stands in contrast to political sentiment in the United States and remains one of the major divides separating Europeans and Americans. What prompted Western Europe's leaders to seek the abolition of the death penalty, often in the face of popular opposition, and what has been the continent's experience with crime and criminals since then? In the second of a two-part series on capital punishment, RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten looks at the death penalty through European eyes.

Prague, 21 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The first country in Europe to abolish capital punishment for all criminal offenses was Portugal in 1867. The last European Union state to strike the death penalty from its books for all categories of crime was Britain in 1999 -- although no execution had been performed there since 1964.

Opponents of the death penalty typically put forward three arguments. First, since a justice system is never foolproof and judicial errors occur, the death penalty should never be used, lest someone be killed by mistake. Second, many studies have shown the existence of capital punishment is not an effective deterrent to crime. And third, a government that can take away human life in the guise of retribution is a vengeful government, which furthers the cycle of violence in society.

These arguments are widely supported by leaders across the political spectrum in Western Europe. Yet, the death penalty continues to enjoy wide support among ordinary citizens in several European countries. In fact, if a binding popular vote had been taken in each European country at the time it moved to abolish capital punishment, the death penalty would have remained in place almost everywhere on the continent.

Didn't European politicians behave undemocratically, therefore, in deciding to forever end executions?

Roger Hood, professor of criminology and director of the Centre for Criminological Research at Oxford University in England, is a leading European authority on capital punishment.

"Obviously, politicians must listen to the people. But the attitude which has been taken in Western Europe, on the whole, is that the problem of capital punishment involves basic issues of human rights that have to be addressed as matters of principle. And the way in which the subject has been looked at, for example, in Britain, is to allow members of parliament to vote on their own conscience on the matter. Of course, they may take into account views of the public," Hood said. "But then, the death penalty is a very tricky subject. It's a difficult one to understand in all its consequences, and we do rely upon our elected members of parliament to inform themselves on all matters and reach a reasoned judgment. For example, we wouldn't just allow public opinion to decide on whether or not people wanted torture."

In the wake of Europe's experience with totalitarianism and two world wars in the 20th century, popular opinion will on certain issues has been treated with greater reserve by democratically elected politicians. The framers of Europe's postwar constitutions believed people could be easily swayed by emotion. Because of its memories of the Third Reich, for example, Germany continues to outlaw the use of popular referendums.

While referendums remain valid instruments in other countries, as Europe has drawn closer together within the framework of the European Union, judicial standards have been harmonized.

"Ideas about how criminals might be treated may vary to some degree between countries, but the idea of having international standards in relation to human rights is that all human beings ought to be treated according to similar standards and should not be subject to degrading, torturous and cruel punishments," Hood said.

Europe has seen a long historical evolution of what defines cruel and degrading punishment. Before a major judicial reform in the 1830s, Britain maintained a roster of more than 200 offenses punishable by execution. Under those laws, shoplifters, vagrants, those found to be in the company of Gypsies for a month, and children aged 7 to 14 years old who demonstrated "strong evidence of malice" could be put to death.

Hood noted that until the 1950s, flogging, or whippings, was standard punishment for certain crimes in Britain.

"People looking back now on floggings, for example, would not think that floggings were appropriate in any circumstance, whereas right up until after the second world war, people convicted of armed robbery could be flogged in this country," Hood said. "Nobody now would consider that flogging was an appropriate kind of penalty for criminal offenders. So attitudes do change."

In general, statistics show a gradual drop in popular approval for the death penalty the longer a country has not carried out executions. Even though Britain continues to have the highest rate of popular approval for capital punishment in Western Europe, at about 60 percent, Hood believes it is significant that debate on reinstating the death penalty no longer features on anyone's political agenda.

"I think what is important in Britain is that there's no parliamentary voice from the right or the left now calling for the reinstatement of capital punishment," Hood said. "One of the main reasons for this has been that we found, particularly during the troubles that we have had over Northern Ireland, that people were convicted of serious crimes involving bombings and murders, who were later found to be innocent of these crimes. There has been such a spate of wrongful convictions, not only in relation to these so-called 'terrorist offenses' but in relation to other crimes, that people have now come to the conclusion that a system of criminal justice that does rely on the death penalty can never cut out wrongful convictions and executions of the innocent."

The idea that capital punishment can act as a deterrent to murder has also been effectively challenged. Most killings are not premeditated -- meaning the perpetrators do not weigh the consequences of their potential actions ahead of time. For the minority of murderers who do carry out their acts with premeditation, it has never been proven that the existence of capital punishment acts as a significant brake.

Proponents of the death penalty, especially in the United States, continue to cite the potential deterrence factor as an argument. John McAdams, a political scientist at Marquette University in the U.S. state of Wisconsin, put it this way: "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."

The fact remains, though, that countries that abolished the death penalty have not seen a universal rise in murder rates. Some have experienced decreases, while countries or regions which retain the death penalty have many times experienced periodic rises in violent crime.

"No, there's not been a surge in criminal activity. There have, of course, been changes in criminal activity that have come about with general social changes of one kind or another, but there's not been a universal increase in murder in countries that have abolished the death penalty," Hood said. "There has, for example, in Canada been a decline in the number of murders since the death penalty was abolished. It's been found in some American states that where the death penalty's been introduced, there's a decline in murder rates, but that decline is found just as much in states which have never had the death penalty. There's no clear connection between the rate of murder and the existence, or not, of capital punishment."

Camelia Paun, regional director of Penal Reform International, an international non-governmental organization devoted to improving judicial systems, said that from her vantage point in Bucharest, Romania, support for the death penalty among ordinary people has dropped since the country abolished capital punishment at the end of 1989. On Christmas Day of that year, former Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, were the last people to be executed by the Romanian state, after a hasty trial.

"More than once or twice a year, there is at least one main magazine which asks: 'Shall we reintroduce the death penalty?' And the general public is not in favor," Paun said. "Even if people are shocked when a child is murdered or when a woman is raped and then is killed, I think they don't believe that the death penalty will solve such a problem. It will not give a guarantee that people are safe -- more safe in society, in their daily lives."

Even in the United States, where more than half of states retain capital punishment and where it has traditionally enjoyed broad support, popular opinion in support has shrunk from a high of 80 percent to about 65 percent in recent years.

In 1967, pressure by opponents of the death penalty resulted in an unofficial moratorium on executions in the United States. Five years later, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down federal and state capital punishment laws that had permitted wide discretion in the application of the death penalty, characterizing the statutes as "arbitrary and capricious." Several states immediately moved to pass new sentencing laws that included greater safeguards for defendants. In 1976, the Supreme Court upheld the validity of capital punishment for certain crimes, clearing the way for 38 of the 50 U.S. states to re-adopt the penalty.

But as in Britain, several prominent miscarriages of justice and the subsequent release of long-time death row inmates -- who had their convictions overturned on the basis of new DNA testing -- have raised questions about the justice system, its fairness toward low-income minorities, and the possibility of executing innocent people.

A 23-year study undertaken by Columbia University law professor James Lieberman examined more than 4,500 death penalty appeals from 1973 to 1995 and found that higher courts had overturned either the conviction or the imposition of the death sentence in 68 percent of cases.

As Paun noted, these facts should prompt Russia and other countries still debating whether to retain or abolish the death penalty to side with the abolitionists, especially since they cannot afford the extra protection that DNA testing can provide to defendants in the United States.

"My main argument would be: Look at the United States. They have reintroduced the death penalty, but they didn't solve the problem of increasing criminality. And look at the recent events which happened there," Paun said. "There are people who were convicted, who were on death row, and they discovered that they didn't have the benefit of a fair trial. They didn't have a good defense lawyer, or they didn't present all the evidence, and he has been, or she has been, convicted with the death penalty, without being actually guilty. And if that happened in the States, where it's very easy to prove things by a DNA sample or similar tests, it's not the case in Russia. Nobody will have enough money to pay for such an expensive analysis."

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