We are pleased to attach our latest monthly death penalty report with thanks to group member Lesley for preparing it. Note that it does not contain any details from China which is the world’s largest executioner of its citizens because details are a state secret. However, a report of the Chinese execution practices was printed in the Sun newspaper in the UK (warning – contains disturbing images).
Eloquent piece by Clive Stafford Smith of Reprieve concerning the death penalty in the USA
Stafford Smith has represented many individuals on death row in the USA so his experience of a dysfunctional and unfair system is considerable. Many more black people are convicted than white people. There is no obligation on the police to make exculpatory evidence available. Prisoners spend decades on death row going through seemingly endless appeals. One case – Kris Maharaj – which we have highlighted on this site, is a case of miscarriage gone badly wrong. Despite copious evidence that he had nothing to do with the murder, he still languishes in prison in Florida. New evidence cannot be introduced at the appeal stage. The level of mistakes is high at around 10% and one of the problems with executions is that they cannot be put right.
Judges may have little criminal experience. Defendants are usually poor and cannot afford experienced or capable lawyers.
This account is of the USA but we should remember that the system is much worse in some other countries of the world: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran for example and that thousands are executed in China where details are a state secret.
Source: Al Jazeera
The US rushed to execute 13 before Jo Biden became president
Shock was widely expressed following the execution of 13 people in the final days of the Trump presidency and just days before president elect Jo Biden takes office on 20th. President Trump has been the most prolific executioner in more than a century. There has been a gradual drift away from this use of the penalty in the USA – the only American nation still to have the penalty – and the executions are out of step with trends and attitudes among the US public. These executions took place in federal prisons. It has been criticised as vindictive.
The Attorney General, William Barr said:
[…] We owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system. US Department of Justice statement when federal executions were resumed after two decades. July 2019 [accessed 16 January 2021]
Lisa Montgomery was executed in the Federal prison of Terre Haute, Indiana today (Wednesday, 13 January 2021) after a long legal struggle to save her from this punishment. The case has caused a major debate in the US partly because Lisa was the first woman to be executed in nearly seven decades. She was executed in a federal prison, not a state one.
There is no doubt that her crime was horrific. But there seems little doubt also that her upbringing, which included being gang raped more than once, contributed to her lack of mental wellbeing and borderline personality disorder. It is unlikely she was aware of what was happening to her. She was the 11th person to be executed at Terre Haute since President Trump resumed federal executions.
The US is the only country in the Americas to retain the death penalty and not all states in the union practise it.
There is no evidence to support the maintenance of this penalty. It does not deter and it brutalises those involved in it. It can make securing convictions harder if juries are unwilling to agree a guilty verdict if there is a risk of execution. It is extremely expensive as we noted in a previous post and it has cost California for example, around $12bn to administer since 1978. For poor people, unable to employ expensive lawyers, the system is stacked against them. Mistakes – and there are many – cannot afterwards be rectified.
This is an interview on CNN of Helen Prejean who is an active campaigner against the death penalty in the USA. Helen is a Roman Catholic, born in Baton Rouge Louisiana, and was chair of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty up to 1995. She is the author of a book, Dead Man Walking.
The interview was made because of President Trump’s programme of carrying out a string of Federal executions in the lame duck period before President elect Joe Biden takes over in January. The number of these is unprecedented.
President-elect Joe Biden has declared that human rights will be an important part of his agenda when he becomes president in January. Following a period when President Trump rowed back on a lot of US commitments in this area, this is clearly welcome. So how is this likely to look?
Trump pulled the US out of the UN Human Rights Council in 2018 and this year designated the International Criminal Court a “security threat.” It is expected that a Biden administration will reverse these decisions as well as re-staffing the depleted Human Rights Department of the US Department of Justice and returning to various arms control agreements. It is also clear that Biden will take a multilateral approach to international issues, unlike his predecessor.
The US-based organisation Human Rights Watch have urged the new administration to reverse course:
On November 9, countries at the UN Human Rights Council reviewed the human rights record of the United States and offered recommendations on guaranteeing the right to health, including sexual and reproductive health, non-discrimination, voting rights, policing, and gender equality, among others. The Biden administration should re-engage with the Human Rights Council, including by accepting Universal Periodic Review recommendations aligned with international human rights law, and realizing the human rights obligations identified by the council
They also urge the incoming regime also to repudiate the Department of State’s Commission on Unalienable Rights, which Trump set up to make a hierarchy of countries and abandon the universality of international human rights law.
Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty UK, has also urged the Biden administration to take a new approach to international law and has indicated 3 areas where the new administration needs to change its human rights policy internally – gun control, asylum seekers and police reform (AIUK, 9 November 2020).
In the run up to the election, Biden made a number of statements in defence of human rights, notably in the Middle East, which he may well struggle to carry out. In the last week or two, Egypt and Turkey have both made a large number of arrests of dissidents (maybe hoping to do so before Trump leaves), and Saudi Arabia is sending feminist activists to a terrorism court.
As Kareem Fahim writes in the Washington Post (27 November 2020):
The moves in recent days, by a trio of authoritarian governments that are close allies or partners of the United States, have put human rights issues front and center weeks before President-elect Joe Biden takes office, in a pre-emptive challenge to his pledge to vigorously defend such rights.
Lisa Montgomery execution to go ahead in the dying days of the Trump presidency
The execution by lethal injection of Lisa Montgomery is now scheduled to take place at Terre Haute Federal prison Indiana on January 12 just days before president-elect Joe Biden takes office. She is the first woman to be executed in almost six decades.
Lisa’s crime was truly awful and involved murder of a woman and the removal of her unborn baby. The argument has been about her mental state and her background. She was the victim of gang rape, incest and sex trafficking. Her defence (defense) has argued that the balance of her mind was disturbed at the time of the murder.
It is some kind of fitting end to the President’s term of office to rush through a number of Federal executions including this one. No other lame duck president has carried out more than one execution since Grover Cleveland’s first presidency in 1888 – 89.
This has been an administration that’s been historically out of step. Not just out of step with the views of America in 2020, but out of step with federal practices by administrations, Democratic or Republican, for the course of [a] century, Death Penalty Information Center Executive Director Robert Dunham told The Washington Post.
The USA is the only country in the Americas to retain the death penalty.
China executes more of its citizens than the rest of the world combined but details are a state secret.
See our latest monthly death penalty report.
Further details of other executions being rushed through on the Death Penalty Information Center
Sources: USA Today; Fort Worth Star-Telegram; Washington Post; Guardian; US Dept. of Justice
There is a majority of people in the UK who, for certain crimes, would like to see a return of the death penalty according to YouGov. The current home secretary, Priti Patel, has said the same on Question time although she now resiles from this. People in favour of the penalty should watch this film.
It concerns a female warden (governor in UK parlance) who is in charge of a prison where people are executed. Directed by a woman, Chinonye Chukwu and starring Alfre Woodard it illustrates the tension of those in charge of actually carrying out the gruesome task. At the start of the film, the execution process is botched and it takes quite a while for the prisoner to die, painfully.
The film charts the tension the warden experiences: on the one hand the desire to be professional and to do a good job and on the other, the doubts about the process itself. This tension is reflected in her marriage where her husband leaves her for a while.
In Hollywood terms, it is quite unusual. Firstly, because women feature a lot in the making of it. Secondly, no background music which allows the natural tension to build. The camera is allowed to linger on certain scenes and there is no frantic scene changes which are so irritating in much drama these days. Lastly, the drama is carried along by Woodard’s expressions and face rather than just dialogue.
It is truly a powerful and quite unique film and makes the fundamental point that the process of executions damages all who are involved in it.
Amnesty is opposed to the death penalty in all circumstances. It does not deter and levels in violence in US states with the penalty is little different to those with it. Mistakes, which are frequent, cannot afterwards be rectified. The process, with appeals lasting years – the average in the US is 10 years – is expensive. It is applied unfairly with a disproportionate number of black people on death row. An examination of the trial of Kris Maharaj in Florida is also worth a read.
The group publishes a monthly report on the penalty around the world.
Meanwhile, the pace of executions in America continues with the Justice Dept. executing three people in four days, matching the total number the US government had conducted in the previous 3 decades (Washington Post). This is part of the ‘law and order’ promise by the President despite serious misgivings by many Americans about the fairness of the process and think it needs a complete overhaul.
The film is available on streaming services.
19 July 2020
Justice denied again for Kris Maharaj in Florida
We have some bad news from Reprieve. Kris Maharaj’s request for a conditional medical release was denied by the Florida Department for Corrections. The DOC didn’t even bother to send a doctor to evaluate him, or include a reason for denying Reprieve’s request. And that’s why they have filed a challenge to their decision.
At the end of the day, the question is a simple one: is Kris a danger to others? No.
Kris never has been. But the prison is a danger to him. He is 81 and particularly vulnerable as COVID-19 sweeps through the prison system. He should be at home with his wife Marita right now.
When we have further news we shall publish it here.
The Supreme Court in the UK has found against the government’s decision to provide information to the USA to facilitate prosecution for crimes carrying the death penalty
In a unanimous decision delivered yesterday, 25 March 2020, agreed that the British government acted unlawfully in providing, or agreeing to provide, information to the United States without seeking assurances that the death penalty would not be imposed. The USA is the only country in the Americas which retains the penalty and we have highlighted in many of our posts, the poor legal process, countless mistakes and lack of proper protection for suspects during interrogations.
This appeal concerned two individuals, Shafee El Sheik and Alexandra Kotey (nicknamed the ‘Beatles by parts of the UK press at the time) who were alleged to be a part of terrorists operating in Syria and who were involved in the murder of British and US citizens.
In a press release by the Death Penalty Project they say:
It has never been in dispute that Mr El Sheik and Mr Kotey should face trial for the serious crimes alleged against them, but any trial, if it is to take place, should be held in the UK. We intervened in this case because we believed the earlier actions of the UK government were contrary to its long-standing approach on the death penalty and could lead to a death sentence being imposed or carried out. The importance of this decision is wider than just this case. It has implication for any individual who may be facing the death penalty and concerns what assurance the UK government must seek before deciding what help or assistance it may give. there are fundamental issues concerning the right to life. Parvais Jabbar, Co-Executive Director
It is interesting that one of the motives for leaving the EU was to ‘take back control’ and to be free of he judgements of the European Court. Yet the government has shown itself all too craven when it comes to ceding power to the US justice system.
Arguments went on about where to prosecute them and the CPS had amassed a considerable body of evidence, sufficient for a trial to take place in the UK. Amnesty is opposed to the use of the death penalty in all circumstances. The use of the penalty was abolished in the UK over 50 years ago.