Why it is beyond time for the US to end the death penalty

Editorial: The Independent is adding its voice to a campaign backed by Sheryl Sandberg and Sir Richard Branson

Tuesday 26 April 2022 11:00 BST
Joe Biden’s White House has gone relatively quiet the issue of the death penalty
Joe Biden’s White House has gone relatively quiet the issue of the death penalty (Getty Images)

Fairness and equity are two values that run through the core of America – or at the very least when it comes to how it perceives itself in the world.

The Covid-19 pandemic and the protests for racial justice that jolted the nation last year after the murder of George Floyd, have highlighted the fact that America is still a nation riven by inequality. It is not alone in that regard, countries across the globe – including the UK – are still facing big questions over the same issues. But that is one issue that the US stands virtually alone in the western world, the use of the death penalty – which is still legal in 27 states.

In this past 50 years, the US has put to death at least 1,536 individuals, 34 per cent of them Black, and 8 per cent Latino. Study after study has shown the death penalty is used against people of colour in an extraordinarily disproportionate way. Lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, a veteran of death row cases who has watched six of his clients put to death, is clear no single fact more greatly impacts whether an individual prisoner will be executed, than the colour of their skin. Miscarriages of justice are an ever-present possibility.

Last year, there were 17 people executed , the lowest number for three decades – with the majority of those occurring during the last six months of Donald Trump's presidency. There are 2,500 people currently on death row across America – which would mean more than a century of executions. A frankly preposterous idea, even putting aside the obvious moral and ethical objections – let alone the sense that it is not an effective deterrent against crime.

The United Nations says that globally the world is moving away from the use of capital punishment, with 170 of its 193 member countries having already abolished or ceased the use of executions. The US is increasingly an outlier, alongside nations such as China, Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

The Independent is adding its voice to a campaign backed by Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, and Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson to end this barbaric practice. Coordinated the UK-based nonprofit organisation Responsible Business Initiative for Justice (RBIJ), the goal is to inspire leaders in business and the media to join the fight to abolish capital punishment. Such leaders – and the businesses they run – have the platform and clout to enact change. The public now expect businesses to push for change in the world around them, with many reasonably believing that many companies have been too quiet on important social issues.

The ethos of The Independent has always been rooted in driving change. With our significant number of global readers, particularly in the US, we take that responsibility seriously. We are also aware that changes made in America can often be a driver for movement on issues elsewhere.

An example of the change that has occurred in the public mood is President Joe Biden himself. Having been a proponent of tough crime policy in the 1990s, his campaign for the White House struck a distinctly different tone. "Because we cannot ensure we get death penalty cases right every time, Biden will work to pass legislation to eliminate the death penalty at the federal level, and incentivise states to follow the federal government’s example,” his website said in 2020.

However, the president has been relatively quiet on the issue. Pushing through legislative change is not an easy task – but this is an issue that requires strong leadership. It is time to end this oppressive, ugly practice.

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