The bad news is that the United States is still among the top executioners in the world. The good news is that the numbers are down. According to an Amnesty International report released today, the U.S. remains in league with China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iraq as the countries responsible for the most executions in 2008. But the 37 executions that took place in the U.S. in 2008 was the lowest total since 1994.
This is partly due to the moratorium imposed on executions while the Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of lethal injection, but it is also due to the steady erosion of support for capital punishment in our courtrooms, our jury rooms, our state legislatures and among the general public. Death sentences have been declining steadily for several years. Public support is down 15 to 20 points. When alternatives are offered, polls show that the public is often evenly divided between supporting the death penalty or preferring sentences like life without parole. And more and more states are engaging in serious death penalty abolition debates, including in New Mexico, where Governor Bill Richardson signed death penalty repeal into law last week.
This decline of capital punishment is mirrored internationally, where, as of the end of 2008, more than two-thirds of the world’s nations had either ceased practicing capital punishment, or had abolished it altogether. A UN General Assembly resolution calling for an immediate worldwide moratorium on executions passed in December with 106 yes votes, and only 46 no votes, with 34 abstentions.
In both the U.S. and the world, capital punishment is increasingly a regional phenomenon. In the U.S. the vast majority of executions take place in the South, with most of those occurring in Texas. Globally, the vast majority of executions take place in Asia and the Middle East, with most of those occurring in China.
Since 1977, when Amnesty International first adopted the death penalty as a fundamental human rights issue, we have seen a slow but steady decline in its use worldwide; since the turn of the new century we have begun to see a similar decline here in the U.S. While Amnesty International’s report clearly reveals deeply troubling capital punishment practices in some countries (beheadings in Saudi Arabia, hanging of juvenile offenders in Iran, large numbers of executions after unfair trials in China), the long-term trends are equally apparent, and in favor of abolition.