Death Penalty Abolition in Illinois Begins THIS WEEK

After 10 years of study and the exonerations of 20 innocent men sentenced to death, Illinois is pushing to join the ranks of New York, New Jersey, and New Mexico by getting rid of this internationally-condemned system once and for all.  Illinois State Representative Karen Yarbrough will introduce a new abolition bill in the veto session THIS WEEK which will repeal the death penalty in Illinois once and for all. On November 16th, Illinoisian Amnesty International members and other abolition supporters will gather at the State Capitol Building in Springfield to demand that state-legislators vote YES for repeal

As Amnesty members in Illinois scramble to meet with legislators, turn votes, fill buses, and take the final steps for repeal, there is something YOU can do from your respective states to secure abolition in Illinois …

Participate in our Virtual Lobby Day on Wednesday November 17th: Call newly-re-elected Democratic Governor Pat Quinn.  If you’re from an abolitionist state, tell the Governor how your state is getting by just fine without the death penalty.  If you hail from a death penalty state, touch on how Illinois has a chance to be a leader in the abolition movement for high-use states, making it possible for other states like your own to move towards repeal.  

Governor Pat Quinn
Office of the Governor
207 State House
Springfield, IL 62706
217-782-0244  (phone)

Illinois is closer than it’s ever been to repeal, but leadership needs pressure from other states to make this monumental step in human rights a reality. 

Whether you’re in a state like Michigan or Wisconsin that has functioned without capital punishment for over a century, or a state like Ohio or Florida with a long road ahead, you have an opportunity to show your solidarity as Illinois approaches this critical moment in its human rights history.  As Amnesty International members, we have heard, and ourselves quoted, Martin Luther King Jr.’s words time and time again: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  We must recognize our interdependency and work together, across state lines, to secure abolition of the death penalty, state by state, with the ultimate goal of abolition of state-sponsored killing everywhere in the USA.

What's Changed?

It was the early summer doldrums of late June.  The year was 1972.  The number one song was Neil Diamond’s Song Sung Blue (really??), and the movies that came out that weekend were The Candidate and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (not exactly blockbusters like The Godfather).  But there was some relatively big news – bigger, at least, than the news from twelve days earlier that five men had been arrested for breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate Hotel.  The bigger news was that the US Supreme Court, by a 5-4 vote, had banned the death penalty.

It was clear at the time that the Court’s slim majority was not stable.  They all had their own different reasons for voting to nullify the nation’s capital punishment laws.  Two wrote that the death penalty was “cruel and unusual punishment”; another wrote that it was discriminatory; another wrote that it was arbitrary (his exact words were, “freakish and wanton”), and still another doubted that executions met any general need for retribution.

It’s almost 40 years later, and the death penalty continues to discriminate, largely on the basis of the race of the victim.  It also continues to be arbitrary – the vast majority of murders do NOT result in a death sentence, and the limited success of capital prosecutions is often determined, not by the heinousness of the crime, but by where the crime is committed and whether the defendant can hire his own lawyer.  The value of retribution in a punishment carried out so rarely and randomly remains doubtful.  And, as more states abolish the penalty or restrict its use (only 11 states carried out executions last year), and as death sentences continue to decline, the “cruel and unusual” argument carries greater weight

When the death penalty in the US is abolished again (and permanently), the movies may be different (then again they may not), the songs may be different (we can only hope), but the arguments will be pretty much the same.

College students read last words of the executed

A couple of days ago, we revealed staggering statistics about countries utilizing capital punishment. Our newest report Death Sentences and Executions shows that the U.S. ranks 7th in the world. Texas leads with the number of executions performed in 2009. Without wasting any time, college students in San Antonio, TX raised their voices in protest against the death penalty.

Check out this video from the event:

Visit or email [email protected] to get involved.

New Global Death Penalty Stats Out Today

A Challenge to the Outliers

Today we released our annual report on global death penalty statistics.

The good news: the world has made progress toward upholding the fundamental right to life by continuing to decrease the use of the death penalty.

The bad news: a handful of countries are carrying on business as usual and need to hear the message more clearly that the time for global abolition has come!

Interesting Facts from the Report:

  • In 2009, 139 countries were death penalty free in law or practice.  (This is up from 16 countries in 1977, when Amnesty began working to abolish the death penalty.)  Burundi and Togo joined the list in 2009.
  • Executions happened in only 18 countries last year with five accounting for the lion’s share: China (thousands), Iran (388), Iraq (120), Saudi Arabia (69) and the US (52).
  • We know of 718 executions that happened in 2009 in addition to thousands from China.  And we know that at least 17,118 lived under sentence of death.
  • Only one country in Europe retains the death penalty – Belarus.  No one was executed in the continent last year.

The Outliers:

China remains the world’s top executioner by the numbers, with thousands being executed in 2009 as in past years.  We didn’t give a number for China’s executions for 2009.  The numbers we’ve given in the past are estimates based on independent, verified reports, but have always been gross underestimates.  China’s government continues to keep this number a state secret; yet, without revealing their records they claim executions have decreased.  So this year, rather than risk a low-ball number being misused, we challenge China to publish the numbers and move toward abolition.

The Middle East and North Africa region continues to lead in executions, per capita.  Just as in China, places like Iran and Iraq used the death penalty to send political messages.  Opponents were silenced and political agendas were furthered with executions.  Between the eight weeks between President Ahmadinejad’s election and inauguration, 112 executions were carried out – almost a third of Iran’s total number of executions in 2009.  Fortunately, however, Algeria, Lebanon, Morocco/Western Sahara and Tunisia did maintain longstanding moratoria on executions.

The US was the only country in the Americas and the only Western democracy to execute prisoners last year.  Fifty two people were put to death in the US last year, with Texas executing about half that number.  Overall, death sentences and executions have been on a downturn in the US in recent years and more state legislatures are seriously considering abolition.  Another welcome step was New Mexico’s repeal of the death penalty last March.  Fortunately, nine people were exonerated from death row, preventing wrongful executions.  This was another important sign for a public that needs to understand just how deeply flawed and broken the death penalty system truly is.  While there are glimmers of hope in the US for abolition, there is still a lot of work to be done to bring the “evolving standards of decency” up to international human rights standards.

We’re looking forward to the day, in the not very distant future, when dust collects on a series of annual reports we used to write about countries that once thought executing its citizens was an acceptable practice!

Help us work for that day!  Visit or email [email protected] to get involved.

Interim Secretary General of Amnesty International comments on the state of the death penalty in China.  View more video interviews »

Tie Vote Stops Kansas Death Penalty Abolition Bill

With a tie vote, the Kansas Senate today failed to pass SB 375, a bill which would have abolished that state’s death penalty.  The Kansas Senate consists of 31 Republicans and 9 Democrats, and the vote was 20-20.

Extensive debates like the one today have been taking place in state legislatures across the country, reflecting a growing national concern that the death penalty is ineffective and unnecessary, and that there are better ways to tackle the problem of violent crime.  Kansas has not had an execution since 1965, and has less than a dozen people on death row.  On Thursday, Governor Mark Parkinson had said

“I haven’t said I would never sign a repeal. I said it’s unlikely. If that bill hit my desk, I assure you I would spend a significant amount of time really researching whether the death penalty made sense.”

Now it appears he will not have to do that research, at least not this year.  But the result of today’s debate underscored that support for capital punishment is increasingly precarious, with a growing number of conservatives voting to abandon the death penalty alongside their more liberal colleagues.

State Death Penalty Debates Begin

As we move deeper into January, most state legislative sessions have begun.  The unifying feature in all these state legislatures is the grim economic and budget picture, but despite that, or perhaps because of that, several states will be debating the death penalty in very substantive ways.  This week, legislative committees in Kansas and Washington are considering abolition. 

The debate in Kansas is significant; their abolition bill, supported by Republican Senator Carolyn McGinn passed out of committee last year but was returned for further study.   In 2003, an official government study concluded that the death penalty in Kansas costs considerably more than the alternatives, and Kansas has not carried out a single execution since the death penalty was reinstated.

Neither has New Hampshire, and a Study Commission in the Granite State is spending this year evaluating the pros and cons of retaining a punishment that they are most likely never going to use (1 death sentence since 1959, no executions since 1939).  A bill to establish a similar study commission in Missouri has been filed, and there is likely to be serious consideration of that this year as well. 

Despite a focus in 2010 on budgets and elections, capital punishment will continue to make news in the halls of many state legislatures.  And, as in recent years (with some exceptions – Virginia, for example), the news will mostly be about efforts to restrict or eliminate the death penalty.

A Healthy Justice System

As Amnesty International reported yesterday the African nation of Togo became the 94th country in the world to abolish the death penalty for all crimes, and the 15th member of the African Union to do so.
In announcing his government’s plans to push for full repeal of capital punishment at the end of last year, Justice Minister Kokou Tozoun was clear and direct:

“This country has chosen to establish a healthy justice system that limits judicial errors…and guarantees the inherent rights of the individual.  This (new) system is no longer compatible with a penal code that maintains the death penalty and grants the judiciary absolute power with irrevocable consequences.”

The vote for repeal, which passed unanimously in the Togo national assembly, is the latest act in the gradual but unmistakable trend towards worldwide abolition of the death penalty. Though only dimly visible in the U.S., where support for capital punishment is shrinking more slowly, this trend is very clear on a global scale, and it is particularly apparent in Africa. Burundi repealed the death penalty earlier this year, and Mali is reportedly considering abolition as well.

New Mexico Abolishes Death Penalty!

Tonight, a little after 6 PM mountain time, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson signed into law a bill abolishing the death penalty in his state. After weeks of publicly wrestling with the issue (he had in previous years been a supporter of capital punishment), and after several days of widely soliciting public comment – a hotline the Governor’s office set up resulted in calls coming in 3-1 in favor of abolition – the Governor agreed to strike capital punishment from the books (though the law is not retroactive, and the fate of the two men who currently occupy New Mexico’s death row is unclear).

New Mexico becomes the 15th state in the U.S. to outlaw capital punishment. Curiously, it is also the third “New” state in a row to be moved into the abolitionist column. New York’s death penalty was declared unconstitutional and its death row closed in 2007, and New Jersey abolished its death penalty legislatively, also in 2007.   The only remaining “New” state – New Hampshire – will be having a House floor debate on death penalty abolition on Tuesday, March 24, though in that state, the Governor is not wrestling with the issue at all (at least not publicly), and is unlikely to support any repeal bill.

New Mexico becomes the first Southwestern state to end its experiment with the death penalty.  Until now, abolition has been confined to the Northeast and Upper Midwest (plus Alaska and Hawaii).   Like its fellow “New” states, New Mexico rarely used its death penalty (only 1 execution since 1960 – the other “New” states never did carry out an execution after reinstating their death penalties after 1976). Other states that fit into this pattern include New Hampshire (no executions since 1939), and Kansas (no executions since reinstatement). In both these states, vital abolition efforts are ongoing.  Other states where abolition debates are heating up (Colorado, Montana, Nebraska )have carried out 1, 3 and 3 executions respectively, and Maryland has only carried out 5.

In fact, more than half the states in the country have either abolished the death penalty, or have carried out fewer than 10 executions in the last 30 years. Only 9 states carried out executions last year.

And support for capital punishment continues to dwindle.  This is reflected in the decreasing number of death sentences handed down by juries (111 last year, down from a high of 328 in 1994), and the reduced support for the death penalty in public opinion polls (a May 2006 Gallup poll revealed that Americans are evenly split between preferring the death penalty (47%) or life without parole (48%)).

Exonerations off of death row (there have been 130 since 1973), and other wrongful convictions revealed by DNA testing (there have been over 230 of those), have worn down enthusiasm for executions as the public has become increasingly aware of how mistake-prone our criminal justice and capital punishment systems can be.

Once a third-rail issue in most states, reforming or even repealing the death penalty is now mainstream politics.  Skepticism about capital punishment is making inroads everywhere, even in the South, where the vast majority of executions take place.  Texas juries are doing what juries are doing nationwide, handing down fewer and fewer death sentences (there were 11 in 2008, as compared to 48 back in 1999). And North Carolina, which has carried out 43 executions since reinstatement, had only one death sentence last year.

The U.S. death penalty will not be relegated to the history books any time soon, but as doubts about its usefulness — and doubts about its cost — persist and grow, more states may decide that it’s just not worth it to maintain capital punishment.

New Mexico Public Calls In for Abolition

Last night, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson’s press office issued a press release highlighting that phone calls to his hotline (505-476-2225) on the question of repealing the death penalty were running over 3-1 in favor of abolition.  The actual totals were 7169 FOR repeal and 2244 against.  The Governor has until midnight (Mountain Time) tonight to take action.  Stay tuned …

One More Step Forward

Yesterday, the New Mexico Senate Judiciary Committee voted 6-5 in support of HB 285, the bill that repeals New Mexico’s death penalty.  This is the committee that, in the past, has killed death penalty abolition, so in advancing to the full Senate, this bill has gone farther than it ever has before

It now only remains for the full Senate to vote (possibly this week) and then for New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson to sign the legislation into law.  Governor Richardson has expressed at least a willingness to sign the bill, but he could always use your encouragement

New Mexico’s legislative session ends next Saturday (March 21), so whatever happens now will happen quickly.