Blog: Lloyd Barnett

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June 28, 2012

“Death Penalty in Decline”: Coverage of Monday’s Event

Posted by Corydon Ireland, Harvard News

This article originally appeared in The Harvard Gazette

If current trends continue, the death penalty may be eliminated worldwide as early as 2026.

That’s according to a visiting fellow at Harvard. “It’s not a feel-good topic,” said Christof Heyns during a panel on Monday. “But it is also not simply gloom and doom.”

Heyns was among six experts who participated in “The Death Penalty: Hanging by a Thread,” a conversation about the global fate of what he called “systematic and organized violence by the state.” The event, in a packed classroom in Griswold Hall, was co-sponsored by the Harvard Law School Human Rights Program and Amnesty International USA. It came on day one of a two-day international conference on the death penalty at Harvard Law School (HLS).

Heyns, a South African legal scholar and human rights activist, is a visiting fellow with the Human Rights Program, and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. In October, he will submit a report on worldwide death penalty trends to the General Assembly.

Another panelist, University of Middlesex (London) legal scholar William A. Schabas, affirmed the worldwide downward trend in death penalty usage. About 40 nation-states — a fifth of the world’s total — still have provisions for the death penalty, he said, but in the past year only 20 have carried out executions. In the past 35 years, Schabas estimated, two or three nation-states a year have either abolished the death penalty or ceased to use it.

In the United States, the death penalty is in decline as well, said Carol Steiker, the Henry J. Friendly Professor of Law and Harvard Law School’s special adviser for public service. Annual executions have dropped from about 100 to 50 in 10 years.

For one, Steiker said, there is an increasing sense of the fallibility of evidence, including the place of DNA in what some lawyers call “the innocence revolution.”

A Supreme Court decision banning the death penalty is far more likely today than a decade ago, Steiker said. But is that even desirable? Forty years ago, the court’s decision in Furman v. Georgia created a virtual moratorium on the death penalty, but also “a furious backlash,” she said. (The court’s renewed acceptance of the death penalty came in 1976, with Gregg v. Georgia.)

It is better, perhaps, to simply let such laws be “hollowed out,” state by state, said Steiker. She cited recent laws, ballot initiatives, legislation, and moratoriums in California, Oregon, Montana, Colorado, Kentucky, and New Hampshire.

The panel addressed another issue: Is the death penalty a form of torture?  Yes, said Juan Méndez. The American University legal scholar, a native of Argentina, is the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Like Heyns, he will submit a report on the death penalty to the General Assembly in October.

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