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“This isn’t accomplishing anything” – The US Death Penalty in 2013

19 Dec

On January 16, 2013, Robert Gleason Jnr became the first person to be executed by the American criminal justice system in 2013. He was electrocuted.

A Virginia inmate who pleaded guilty to a 2007 murder, Gleason had also killed two other prisoners while he was serving his sentence. Four US states offer condemned prisoners the option to choose electrocution over lethal injection. Gleason was the first prisoner to choose electrocution since March 2010.

Only 157 death-row electrocutions have taken place out of 1,320 executions since the US death penalty was reinstated in 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Gleason’s lawyers had argued he had a long history of mental illness and his condition had deteriorated during a year in solitary confinement.

He repeatedly emphasised that he had waived the appeals process because he knew he would kill again if he was not executed. Governor Bob McDonnell stated that has expressed no remorse for his crimes, and was found competent by the appropriate courts.

The final execution of 2013 in the USA was carried out in Oklahoma State Penitentiary. Johnny Dale Black was executed  on December 17, 2013. He had been convicted of first-degree murder.

According to Oklahoma Corrections representative Jerry Massie, Black’s final words were:

“This isn’t accomplishing anything. It’s just another death, another family destroyed. I love everybody. I love you — you can count on that, Mama.”

In 2013, there were a total of 39 executions in 9 states in America (there were a total of 80 capital sentences imposed in 2013). Just two states, Texas and Florida, were responsible for almost three-fifths of all US executions this year.

A number of prominent capital punishment states, including Louisiana and Tennessee, did not impose a single death sentence in in 2013, while Maryland became the sixth state in six years to abolish capital punishment.

This year was only the second year in almost two decades that America executed fewer than 40 people. Thirty two US states continue to have the death penalty as a sentencing option, while 18 states have abolished capital punishment. The total of executions in America has been falling overall since 1999, when 98 people were executed.

2013 US death penalty graphic

2013 US death penalty graphic

According to the Death Penalty Information Center’s latest annual report, the number of executions declined in 2013. Fewer states passed death sentences, and the number of those of death row decreased year-on year. Richard Dieter, the Centre’s Executive Director has observed that

Twenty years ago, use of the death penalty was increasing. Now it is declining by almost every measure… The recurrent problems of the death penalty have made its application rare, isolated, and often delayed for decades. More states will likely reconsider the wisdom of retaining this expensive and ineffectual practice.”

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California’s Death Penalty – On The Way Out?

13 Nov

The death penalty is currently a legal sentence in 37 states in the USA (as well as in the federal criminal justice system). The list of states which retain the death penalty includes America’s most populous state, California. When America voted to re-elect President Barack Obama on November 6, 2012, the state of California also voted to retain the death penalty.

Voters rejected Proposition 34, an initiative which would have replaced the death penalty with a sentence of life imprisonment without parole, albeit by a narrow margin. While 52.8% voted to keep the death penalty, 47.2% voted to abolish it. Proposition 34 also required inmates sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole to work to enable them to pay restitution to victims’ families. It also allocate approximately $30 million per year for three years to police departments, specifically to solve murder and rape cases which remained open. However, the measure was still unsuccessful.

While on the face of it this is a vote for the death penalty, it nevertheless may be indicative of a broader trend of changing attitudes to capital punishment throughout America. When voters expressed a view on capital punishment in California some 34 years earlier, some 71% supported the death penalty.

Legal executions in have been undertaken in California since they first authorised under the state’s Criminal Practices Act of 1851 (with a brief hiatus from 1972 to 1976). Since then, executions have been undertaken by firing squad, hanging, and lethal gas. Since 1993, the preferred method of execution has been lethal injection.

In recent years, however, California’s use of the death penalty is gradually declining. While there are currently 726 inmates on the state’s Death row (which makes it the largest death row in America), the reality is that no prisoner has actually been executed since 2006.California accommodates almost a quarter of the entire death row population in America. It is also noteworthy that figures from the  National Registry of Exonerations confirm that California tops the list of states with wrongful convictions.

Executions were suspended in California in February, 2006 as a result of a federal judge concluding that the state’s execution process was flawed

A condemned prisoner had argued that inadequate training for those administering the death penalty and the poor conditions in the death chamber at San Quentin prison amounted to a “cruel and unusual punishment”. ( The Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution lays down that “cruel and unusual punishments [shall not be] inflicted”. TNew procedures were drafted by the California Department of Corrections, and the death chamber was revamped, but the moratorium is due to continue for another year.

A total of 13 people convicted of murder have been executed by the state of California following the resumption of capital punishment after the 1976 U.S. Supreme Court decision of Gregg v. Georgia. In 11 of these cases, the method of execution has been lethal injection. The problematic nature of the administration of the death penalty in California is underlined by records of how prisoners on death row have died since 1976:

  • 57 condemned prisoners have died from natural causes
  • 20 condemned prisoners have committed suicide
  • 6 condemned prisoners have died from “other causes”
  • 13 condemned prisoners have actually been executed in California (11 by lethal injection, and two by gas)

The reality, then, is that more prisoners on death row have died from natural causes or from suicide than from the death penalty.

Current opponents of the death penalty in California have located their arguments in the context of the current fiscal austerity. It is estimated that California has spent some $4 billion on the administration of the death penalty since capital punishment resumed in 1977. The state now has an annual expenditure of approximately $184 million on the death penalty. The cost of legal representation, special trials and death row accommodation continues to rise. It is estimated that it will cost a further $1 billion over the next 5 years. It is a continuing paradox that, while millions of dollars are spent on the death penaly each years, the reality is that more death row prisoners die of old age than die due to leathal injection.

Those called upon to administer the death penalty have recorded the immense psychological stresses which it places upon them. One former executioner has spoken of he finally sought help after seeing the dead men he executed sitting on the side of his bed at night.

While it appears that the popular support for the death penalty is California is gradually being eroded, it is also clear that it may take some time for the tipping point in electoral support which will lead to the abolition of the death penalty to be reached.

China’s Death Penalty

11 Mar
The main entrance to the Supreme People's Cour...

Main entrance, Supreme People's Court of the People's Republic of China (Creative Commons)

China has a cultural history of punishment which is both swift and severe, in order to ensure the masses are educated to avoid crime.

Reality TV shows have long been a magnet for millions of viewers in the UK. However, what attracts viewers in their droves for prime time Saturday viewing in central China reflects a different kind of reality altogether.

For the last five years, some forty million viewers in central China’s Henan province been transfixed each week by interviews carried out with condemned inmates immediately prior to their execution.

“Interviews Before Execution” is presented by the journalist Ding Yu. The Chinese government is reported to have approved the programme as they believed it would serve as a deterrent to offending. Interviewees were selected by a judiciary committee as “suitable subjects to educate the public.”

Ding Yu has interviewed more than 200 condemned Chinese prisoners, days – or sometimes only hours – before they are executed. If the aim of the programme was to bring China’s death penalty to the public’s attention, it has certainly succeeded. The programme has topped the ratings.

The programme may be about to be abruptly cut from the television schedules. The TV company in the Henan province that produced the programme for over 5 years has confirmed to Western news organisations that the show has been terminated due to unspecified “internal problems”.

While further clarification was unforthcoming, this happened in a context of the spotlight of international news focusing on the programmme. The programme may have represented an embarassment to a modernising regime. The BBC is broadcasting a film which includes excerpts from the Chinese programme.

The dynamics of gender and the death penalty in China are instructive. Almost half of those interviewed by Ding Yu were female. A significant proportion weremothers.

We know that the death penalty in the People’s Republic of China is relatively widely used. While Iran, for example, has a proportionally higher execution rate when size of the population is taken into account, China is widely agreed to execute the greatest number of people every year. This is hardly surprising, given that a quarter of the planet’s population live in China.

The Washington Post has calculated that, on a per-capita basis, China has carried out approximately 30 times more executions than the USA.

In 2010 Amnesty International was not able to provide definitive confirmation on the numbers of those executed in China. The government does not supply an official tally of those who are subject to capital punishment.  While the figure remains a state secret, it is generally agreed to number in the thousands.

The use of the death penalty may reflect a deep rooted cultural belief in China which supports capital punishment for its perceived deterrent and retributive qualities. The death penalty in China has been a state penal sanction for many centuries. Its use has been recorded by historians since the 16th century BC and the Shang dynasty.

The death penalty remained the ultimate penal sanction following the Communists coming to power in 1949. Mass public sentencing rallies attended by thousands of people  (in some ways reminiscent of Mao’s mass struggle) were not uncommon. The condemned prisoner were publicly denounced before being promptly executed.

This has been commonly referred to in China as the practice of  ‘killing the chicken to scare the monkey’; that is, to deter potential criminality. Despite the gruesome and public nature of the spectacle, it did not appear to deter serious crime. Following the economic reforms of 1978, crime rates shot up.

Communist Party policy has both informed and influenced the Chinese approach to capital punishment. Following China’s ‘Strike Hard’ campaigns, which have presaged thousands of executions (we do not know exactly how many thousands), matched by the ‘kill many’ approach which commenced around 3 decades ago, China eventually began to gradually shift to the kill fewer policy stance in the middle of the first decade of the 21st century.

Trevaskes, a leading criminologist, has observed that while the ‘Strike Hard’ campaign was designed to ensure ‘severe and swift’ punishment for offenders, the currently policy reflects the twin imperatives which comprise the current  ‘Balancing Leniency and Severity’ policy.

In essence, rather than ‘kill many’, the policy may be about ‘killing fewer’ – though not, so far, about abolishing the death penalty and killing none at all.

Trevaskes describes one particular trial in 2001, when two men were convicted of murdering a total of 12 people in the course of a series of robberies. She records that the whole trial was over in less than one hour, and most of that short period was occupied simply by reading the indictment. The two defendants were condemned to death, and were immediately executed.

Trevaskes records that in a period lasting just 3 months in 2001, a total of 1,781 death sentences were officially reported to have been carried out (the actual total may have been considerably more).

In 2004, the Supreme People’s Court aimed to implement a more restricted use of capital punishment and supported a move ‘to balance leniency and severity’ and to ‘kill fewer, kill cautiously’. Effectively this amounted to a clear attempt to limit the use of the death penalty.

Until 2011, the Chinese legal system listed a total of 68 separate offences which carried the death penalty. That list was decreased to 55 offences in 2011, when the National People’s Congress Standing Committee passed an amendment which dropped 13 offences from those that had previously been eligible for capital punishment. The amendment also ended the execution of anyone aged 75 or over.

As the Dui Hua foundation (based in California, a state which ironically currently has over 700 prisoners currently languishing on death row) presciently observed in 2010 :

“Of more lasting significance (than the actual amendment)  may be the public discussion that the proposed revision generates, discussion that could lead to more fundamental change in the way that Chinese people think about capital punishment and, perhaps, the frequency with which China puts its citizens to death.”

The Chinese legal code states that it only applies the  death penalty shall only be applied to those who have committed serious crimes. There is also what amounts to a type of probationary death sentence in use. If the immediate execution of a defendant for an offence punishable by death is not considered necessary, the death sentence can be suspended for two years.

Following good behaviour for those two years, the death penalty may be commuted to either life imprisonment. or a shorter prison term.

Some of those offences are not punishable by the death penalty in any other country in the world. For example, economic crimes including tax offences, theft, and corruption have attracted capital punishment, as well as murder. The death sentence for Chinese officials convicted of corruption is not unknown.

In 2009, a woman named Wu Ying was sentenced to death for illegal fundraising. She had raised 770m yuan (£79m) fraudulently from 11 different people. The Supreme Court of China has commented that her sentence would be reviewed “cautiously”, which may indicate that attitudes to the death penalty – at least, for financial offences – may be beginning to change.

Zhu Yongxin, vice president of the Chinese Society of Education, offered qualified support for China’s use of capital punishment earlier this month:

“The conditions for abolishing the death penalty are not yet sufficient. Although 139 other countries have annulled the death penalty, Chinese law still insists on it because the country has a 4,000-year tradition of capital punishment and the people here think ‘whoever shed the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed’ is a self-evident truth.”

“It’s also because social security is not optimistic and the crime rate is still relatively high. In my view, the death penalty should be limited as much as possible and not be meted out on economic crimes.”

Further Reading: Trevaskes, Susan (2010): Policing Serious Crime In China: From ‘Strike Hard’ To ‘Kill Fewer’ (London and New York: Routledge, 2010)