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There are many false impressions floating around through American society concerning the death penalty; this paper hopes to clarify some of the more prominent, noticeable ones.
Does the death penalty deter? Scientific studies have consistently failed to find convincing evidence that the death penalty deters crime more effectively than other punishments. The most recent survey of research findings on the relation between the death penalty and homicide rates, conducted for the United Nations in 1988 and updated in 1996, concluded: "Research has failed to provide scientific proof that executions have a greater deterrent effect than life imprisonment and such proof is unlikely to be forthcoming. The evidence as a whole still gives no positive support to the deterrent hypothesis..."(Hood 238)
Reviewing the evidence on the relation between changes in the use of the death penalty and crime rates, a study conducted for the United Nations in 1988 and updated in 1996 stated that "the fact that all the evidence continues to point in the same direction is persuasive a priori evidence that countries need not fear sudden and serious changes in the curve of crime if they reduce their reliance upon the death penalty".(Edwin)
Recent crime figures from abolitionist countries fail to show that abolition has harmful effects. In Canada, the homicide rate per 100,000 population fell from a peak of 3.09 in 1975, the year before the abolition of the death penalty for murder, to 2.41 in 1980, and since then it has declined further. In 1999, 23 years after abolition, the homicide rate was 1.76 per 100,000 population, 43 per cent lower than in 1975. The total number of homicides reported in the country fell in 1999 for the third straight year.(Hood 253)
One of the most important developments in recent years has been the adoption of international treaties whereby states commit themselves to not having the death penalty. Three such treaties now exist:
* The Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which has now been ratified by 46 states. Seven other states have signed the Protocol, indicating their intention to become parties to it at a later date.
* Protocol No. 6 to the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms ("European Convention on Human Rights"), which has now been ratified by 39 European states and signed by three others.
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* The Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights to Abolish the Death Penalty, which has been ratified by eight states in the Americas and signed by one state.
Protocol No. 6 to the European Convention on Human Rights is an agreement to abolish the death penalty in peacetime. The other two protocols provide for the total abolition of the death penalty but allow states wishing to do so to retain the death penalty in wartime as an exception.
Do the innocent get executed? As long as the death penalty is maintained, the risk of executing the innocent can never be eliminated.
Since 1973 more than 90 US prisoners have been released from death row after evidence emerged of their innocence of the crimes for which they were sentenced to death. Some had come close to execution after spending many years under sentence of death. Recurring features in their cases include prosecutorial or police misconduct; the use of unreliable witness testimony, physical evidence, or confessions; and inadequate defence representation. Other US prisoners have gone to their deaths despite serious doubts over their guilt.
The Governor of the US state of Illinois, George Ryan, declared a moratorium on executions in January 2000. His decision followed the exoneration of the 13th death row prisoner found to have been wrongfully convicted in the state since the USA reinstated the death penalty in 1977. During the same period, 12 other Illinois prisoners had been executed.
Announcing the moratorium, Governor Ryan said: "I cannot support a system which, in its administration, has proven so fraught with error and has come so close to the ultimate nightmare, the state's taking of innocent life... Until I can be sure that everyone sentenced to death in Illinois is truly guilty, until I can be sure with moral certainty that no innocent man or woman is facing a lethal injection, no one will meet that fate.(Governor)
The Death Penalty in the USA:
* 85 prisoners were executed in the USA in 2000, bringing to 683 the total number executed since the use of the death penalty was resumed in 1977.
* Over 3,700 prisoners were under sentence of death as of 1 January 2001.
* 38 of the 50 US states provide for the death penalty in law. The death penalty is also provided under US federal military and civilian law.
Edwin Ginn Library, Tufts University. http://fletcher.tufts.edu/multi/humanRights.html
Governor Ryan Celebrates Moratorium . . . http://www.state.il.us/gov/press/00/Jan/morat.htm
Hood,Roger. The Death Penalty: A World-wide Perspective. Oxford: Clarendon Press, revised edition, 1996.