November 30, 2005
Americans pride themselves on their human decency and common sense, yet the death penalty contradicts both. The country should reject such senseless cruelty.
Jamie Fellner, director, U.S. Program, Human Rights Watch.

On Friday, December 2, the United States will conduct the 1000th execution since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.

Absent a last-minute reprieve by the governor of North Carolina, at 2 a.m. on Friday, Kenneth Lee Boyd, 57, will become the 1000th person to be executed in the United States in the past 30 years. Boyd was convicted in 1994 for murdering/shooting to death his estranged wife and her father in front of his children. Another execution, of Shawn Paul Humphries for killing a convenience store owner in a robbery, is scheduled for Friday night in South Carolina.

The United States is one of only a few constitutional democracies that execute criminal offenders. It joins China, Iran and Vietnam as the countries with the highest number of executions in 2004. The Council of Europe has banned the death penalty in all of its 46 member states; abolition of the death penalty is a precondition for joining the European Union.

“Americans pride themselves on their human decency and common sense, yet the death penalty contradicts both,” said Jamie Fellner, director of the U.S. Program at Human Rights Watch. “The country should reject such senseless cruelty.”

There is no evidence that the death penalty reduces crime. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, the murder rate in death penalty states is 44 percent higher than in non-death penalty states. The United States has four times the homicide rate of Europe, which does not execute any criminal defendant, no matter how serious the crime. Europe’s experience also refutes any argument that the death penalty is necessary to communicate a community’s moral condemnation of crime or to ensure justice.

“An eye for an eye is no basis for justice in the 21st century,” said Fellner. “National polls show the public understands this, as they reject capital punishment when life imprisonment is an option.”

Doubts about the fairness of the death penalty and the possibility of executing the innocent have fueled the decline in U.S. public support for the death penalty. More than 120 people have been released from death row since 1976 due to evidence of their innocence. Recently disclosed evidence suggests that Texas killed an innocent man when it executed Ruben Cantu in 1993. Last month, Cantu’s co-defendant signed an affidavit saying that Cantu had not been with him the night of the murder. The only other eyewitness has also recanted his story, explaining that he was intimidated by the police during the investigation.

Racial bias and arbitrariness permeate the death penalty. An African-American who kills a white person is far more likely to be sentenced to death than a white person who kills an African-American. Prosecutors in certain counties are far more likely to seek the death penalty than their counterparts elsewhere – meaning the geography of the crime influences the likelihood of receiving the death penalty. The quality of legal representation is also a significant factor in determining who is sentenced to death. Most defendants in capital cases are poor and unable to afford their own attorneys. In all too many cases, the attorneys appointed to represent them are overworked, inexperienced, unwilling or unable to mount a vigorous defense of their clients.

Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances. The intrinsic fallibility of all criminal justice systems assures that even when full due process of law is respected, innocent persons may be executed. The death penalty is inherently cruel and executions are inevitably carried out in an arbitrary manner, inflicted primarily on the most vulnerable.