The death penalty has been a hotly debated topic for centuries, but just recently in 2016, it has for the first time in history become part of an official party platform - that of the Democratic Party, who supports abolishing it.
According to Amnesty International, in 2010 the majority of all known executions took place in five countries – China, Iran, North Korea, Yemen and the U.S. With America being the only Western country in this list, the question arises: where does the death penalty stand as of 2016?
Proponents of abolishing the death penalty cite fiscal savings, the risk of executing the wrongly-convicted, and the morality of the practice as reasons for eradication of capital punishment. Yet supporters of the death penalty argue that there are no fiscal savings, that the use of DNA evidence provides safeguards against wrongful conviction, and that it is an important public safety tool.
Many states passed legislation regarding capital punishment in the past year, with mixed results. Utah successfully passed legislation that abolished the practice, but similar legislation in other states has failed. Delaware’s Senate passed a bill repealing the use of the death penalty but went forth to fail in the House. Nebraska also passed legislation, which was ultimately unsuccessful after being vetoed by Governor Pete Ricketts.
Nonetheless, Nebraska will see the repeal of the death penalty as a ballot measure referendum in November. Similarly, California will also have death penalty reform as a ballot measure.
In comparison, North Carolina extended the ability of non-physicians to monitor an execution by way of legal injection with HB 774, and Virginia passed a bill that authorizes the Director of the Department of Corrections to purchase drugs for lethal injection from a secret pharmacy.
Passage of such legislation is significant because if states continue to move in different directions on the issue, the use of death as punishment changes depending on where an individual commits a crime.
For example, if an individual is convicted of first-degree murder in Delaware, they are eligible for the death penalty, whereas a life sentence is the maximum punishment if convicted of first-degree murder in Maryland. Variation on punishment for the same crime state to state is an argument cited by abolitionists as a major issue, and adds to the heated debate.
However, this is not an issue unique to death penalty crimes. For example, if an individual commits manslaughter in Maryland, they are subject to a maximum punishment of 10 years, whereas committing manslaughter in Delaware is a Class B Felony, and therefore punishable by 2 to 25 years imprisonment. Thus, variation on punishment exists outside of the death penalty debate.
The use of capital punishment therefore remains a legislative issue internally for the USA, but it also receives external attention. The European Commission states respect for human rights as one of the foundings principles of the EU, and that respect for these fundamental freedoms form an essential element of relations with other countries. In its anti-torture measures, the Union prevents trade in goods that can be used for capital punishment, meaning that no EU members can trade specific substances with the US.
However, constitutional lawyers present the argument that the idea that governments should never take human life, no matter what, is an article of faith, not of fact. Some argue that the death penalty honors human dignity by treating the defendant as a free moral actor able to control their own destiny; it does not treat them as an animal with no moral sense.
In addition, Race is another hotly contested issue surrounding the death penalty. When addressing the audience at the Black Caucus Awards, President Barack Obama talked of the racial disparities when applying the death penalty, adding to the argument that the death penalty disproportionately targets people of color. Race is another hotly contested issue surrounding the death penalty, but some suggest that it is no surprise that disparities exist.
As a counter argument, Roger Clegg, JD, argues that while minorities are given the death sentence at a higher rate than others, the issue is not one of race. Rather, he states that if poverty breeds crime, and the poor are disproportionately minority, then it follows that minorities will be overrepresented among criminals.
But where do the presidential candidates stand on the issue?
Democrat Hillary Clinton stated she does support capital punishment for the “most heinous crimes”, but stressed the need for the highest standards of evidentiary proof or they cannot continue.
Donald Trump, Republican, in response to a question about the murder of police officers stated that he believes the death penalty “should be brought back and it should be brought back strong.”
The Green Party’s Jill Stein supports the abolition of the death penalty.
Libertarian Gary Johnson, stated in a CNN town hall that “the death penalty is subject to 3 percent to 4 percent error . . . so if you’re in that category, and you’re put to death, that’s my opposition”.
With the Democrats placing abolition of capital punishment in their party platform, the death penalty is likely to continue to receive more attention throughout the presidential election year of 2016.
Hannah Spencer is a British exchange student at The University of Texas at Austin, majoring in Government and a current intern with Vote Smart. For more information on internship opportunities with Vote Smart, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 1-888-VOTE-SMART