Why we're against the death penalty

I have repeatedly spoken out about the need to end the death penalty. In a civilised, humane society there should no room for what I consider a truly barbaric practice, which belittles us all.

And yet, so many countries, including the US and Japan, still hold on to the idea killing by the state will deter and reduce violent crime. Study after study shows that it doesn’t, and to make things worse, time and again men and women on death row are exonerated after DNA analysis or newly discovered evidence show that they were wrongly convicted. This raises the terrifying question just how many people may have been executed for crimes they didn’t commit?

Today is the World Day Against the Death Penalty, and it is an uncanny coincidence that less than 48 hours ago, the State of Texas released another prisoner from death row, after evidence not previously used proved his innocence. Manuel Velez walked away from Huntsville Prison a free man, six years after his conviction for a murder he could not have committed, as we know now. 

Another proof point that death penalty cases carry just too many risks, from incompetent or overworked public defenders to zealous prosecutors and law enforcement officials all too willing to suppress critical evidence. If this can happen in the US, just how much worse must the situation be in countries with less developed legal systems? 

Image by LAT Photographic

One group disproportionately affected by the death penalty are those suffering from mental illness or intellectual disabilities, who, to counter a widespread misperception, do not pose a greater risk of violence than the general population.

However, in many capital cases around the world, they are inadequately supported and represented, leaving them unable to effectively defend themselves. As a result, people with mental health issues often end up on death row even though they may be legally ineligible to receive the death penalty.

It’s good to know that mental health is the focus of this year’s World Day, and the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty has produced a set of recommendations for governments to reduce the risk that people with mental or intellectual disabilities end up on death row.

- Immediate implementation of existing standards barring the imposition of death sentences or executions on those with intellectual disabilities and those who are seriously mentally ill. The practice of executing such persons should cease immediately.

- Renewed efforts to (i) ensure that all states have laws that embed international protections in their domestic legislation; (ii) extend protection to those with serious mental illness not covered by existing proscriptions against executing persons affected by “insanity”.

- Adoption by national medical and legal professional bodies of codes of conduct ensuring that professionals do not act unethically or unprofessionally in capital cases.

- Ensure that adequate mental health care is available for defendants in capital cases in which mental or intellectual disabilities are claimed as a factor.
- Work towards the reduction of stigma against persons with mental or intellectual disabilities, particularly where media reports promote inaccurate public beliefs about risks posed by such persons.

We should all strive to end the death penalty for good. But on the road to universal abolition, we must do all we can to protect those that are most at risk of being innocently convicted.

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