United Kingdom Marks 50th Anniversary of Death Penalty Abolition

On November 8, 1965, 50 years ago, the United Kingdom abolished capital punishment. On that date, Parliament transmitted to Queen Elizabeth II for royal assent the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act of 1965. The Act, which ended capital punishment in England, Wales, and Scotland subject to Parliamentary review after 5 years, took effect on November 9, 1965. When Parliament confirmed the Act in December 1969, the abolition of capital punishment in the United Kingdom became permanent. The movement to end the death penalty in the U.K. was spurred by three controversial executions in the 1950s. In 1950, Timothy Evans was wrongfully executed for the murder of his wife and young child. His neighbor, John Christie, who testified against Evans, was later found guilty of six other murders and confessed to killing Evans' family. Evans was given a posthumous royal pardon in 1966. In 1953, Derek Bentley was executed for the murder of a police officer during a robbery, although the actual killer was a teenager who was ineligible for capital punishment and Bentley was at most an accomplice to the robbery. Bentley's conviction was posthumously overturned in 1998. Finally, in 1955, Ruth Ellis was executed for killing her abusive lover. Her execution drew widespread public outrage and more than 50,000 people signed petitions unsuccessfully seeking a reprieve for Ellis. 

UN Secretary-General: "I Will Never Stop Calling for an End to the Death Penalty"

Calling the punishment "simply wrong," United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has vowed to "never stop calling for an end to the death penalty." Speaking at the launch of a new book by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, "Moving Away from the Death Penalty: Arguments, Trends and Perspectives," the Secretary-General highlighted the worldwide decline of capital punishment, noting that "more and more countries and States are abolishing the death penalty." Data from the book confirms these trends: in 1975, about 97% of countries were carrying out executions, as compared to only 27% today. Ban Ki-Moon appeared alongside Kirk Bloodsworth, the first death-sentenced person in the U.S. to have been exonerated by DNA evidence. The Secretary-General said of Bloodsworth, "[Mr. Bloodsworth] represents the reason we are here today. He is totally innocent of any crime. But like too many other people, he suffered the unforgiveable injustice of a death sentence…I am conscious that he says he was not exonerated because the system worked but because of a series of miracles." Bloodsworth explained his reasons for supporting abolition by saying, "It’s very simple: if it can happen to me it can happen to anyone; in America or anywhere. What I’m saying is that an innocent person can be executed and that should never happen. If it can happen to me it can happen to anybody anywhere in the world."  

Another Drug Company Opposes Use of Its Product in Executions

Sun Pharma, which is based in India, has publicly dissociated itself from the use of its drugs in upcoming Arkansas executions. The company said it prohibits the sale of its products to entities that might use them for killing. Sun Pharma was notified of the possible misuse of its products by the Associated Press, which had obtained redacted photographs of the drugs Arkansas planned to use in eight scheduled executions. A recently passed secrecy law allows the state to withhold the source of its execution drugs from public scrutiny. (Virginia's Supreme Court also recently shielded some information about executions from the public.) Other companies whose drugs might be used by Arkansas have also objected. Hikma Pharmaceuticals said it was investigating whether Arkansas had obtained midazolam from one of its subsidiaries, and Hospira, which was identified as a possible source of the potassium chloride that Arkansas plans to use, was one of the first companies to bar its drugs from executions.

In New Book, Media Interviews, Justice Breyer Addresses International Opinion, Arbitrariness of Death Penalty

In his new book, The Court and the World: American Law and the New Global Realities, and in media interviews accompanying its release, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer discusses the relationship between American laws and those of other countries and his dissent in Glossip v. Gross, which questioned the constitutionality of the death penalty. In an interview with The National Law Journal, Breyer summarized the core reasons underlying his Glossip dissent: "You know, sometimes people make mistakes, [executing] the wrong person. It is arbitrary. There is lots of evidence on that. Justice Potter Stewart said it was like being hit by lightning, whether the person is actually executed. If carried out, a death sentence, on average takes place now 18 years after it is imposed. The number of people who are executed has shrunk dramatically. They are centered in a very small number of counties in the United States. Bottom line is, let's go into the issue. It is time to go into it again." In his book, Breyer argues that the laws and practices of foreign countries are relevant to and might be particularly informative on questions regarding the Eighth Amendment. He notes that international opinion has influenced decisions to end the death penalty for juveniles and for crimes that do not result in death. His Glossip opinion also mentioned international practices - that only 22 countries carried out executions in 2013 and that the U.S. was one of only eight that executed more than 10 people - among the reasons American capital punishment may be an unconstitutionally "cruel and unusual punishment." That phrase, he says in his book, is itself of foreign origin. "It uses the word 'unusual,'" Breyer says, "and the founders didn't say unusual in what context." Foreign law and practices, he argues, should form part of that context.

Major European Pension Fund Divests from Pharmaceutical Company Linked to Executions

The Dutch public employees' pension fund, Stichting Pensioenfonds ABP (ABP), has divested from the pharmaceutical company Mylan after learning that the Virginia Department of Corrections had supplies of one of Mylan's products in stock for use in executions. A spokesman for ABP - which with net assets of $416 billion is the world's third largest pension fund - said, "As the Dutch government and Dutch society as a whole renounced the death penalty a long time ago, we do not want Dutch pension money to be involved in that." Although Mylan states on its website that its products are not intended for use in executions, fund managers were not satisfied with the company's measures to keep the drugs out of lethal injections. ABP held €25 million shares in Mylan in 2014, but began selling them off during 9 months of unfruitful discussions with the company. ABP says it sold its remaining €9 million ($10 million) Mylan holdings in full because "We thought we have only one step left to show our disapproval." The divestment is part of ongoing efforts by European officials to discourage executions in the U.S., which the European Union regards as a human rights violation. European companies are banned from exporting drugs for use in executions, and several European drug companies have put distribution restrictions in place to stop their products from being used in lethal injection.

Human Rights Commission Calls for Stay of Execution for Nicaraguan Man on Texas Death Row

(UPDATE: The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has granted Bernard Tercero a stay of execution to permit him to litigate evidence that a lead prosecution witness testified falsely against him.) The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), a unit of the Organization of American States, has called on Texas officials to stay the execution of Nicaraguan citizen Bernardo Tercero (pictured), who is scheduled to be executed in Texas on August 26. Under international treaties on consular relations, foreign citizens (including Americans abroad) must be afforded access to their government's consulate at the time of their arrest. The IACHR has ruled that Texas' failure to respect these treaty obligations denied Tercero "his right to consular notification and assistance [and] deprived him of a criminal process that satisfied the minimum standards of due process and a fair trial" required under Inter-American human rights treaties. The IACHR also concluded that Tercero's court-appointed counsel "committed serious mistakes that affected his right to defense" and that procedural rulings by the courts in his case denied Tercero the "possibility to have his sentence effectively reviewed." The Organization of American States issued a statement saying that, "Should the state of Texas carry out this execution, it would be committing a serious and irreparable violation of the basic right to life" guaranteed in American human rights instruments. As of June 9, 2015, 139 foreign nationals were on death rows across America, with 61 in California and 22 in Texas. 

Global Trends Point Toward Long-Term Decline of Capital Punishment

A recent article in The Economist highlights continuing long-term international trends away from the death penalty. Since December, three countries - Fiji, Madagascar, and Suriname - have abolished the death penalty, increasing the number of abolitionist countries to above 100. In December, 117 countries voted to support a United Nations resolution for an international moratorium on executions. The article notes a few outlier countries, including the United States and China, in which executions persist and that there has been a rise in executions in portions of the Muslim world. In the U.S., however, death sentences were down and numerous metrics point to the decline of capital punishment. "Of the 31 states that still have the death penalty, half have executed no one since 2010...In 1994 80% of Americans said they endorsed the death penalty in principle. The Pew Research Centre reckons that fewer than 60% do so today—and notes that young Americans are less keen than their elders." Even in China, which carries out more executions than any other nation, the use of the death penalty is on the decline. "The number is a state secret but the Dui Hua Foundation, an American NGO, reckons there were about 2,400 [executions] in 2013, the last year it has been able to track. Campaigns against corruption and terrorism mean the fall may not have continued last year. But the long-term trend is steeply down. In 1983 24,000 people are thought to have been executed." (Click image to enlarge.)

BOOKS: "The Death Penalty: A Worldwide Perspective"

The Death Penalty: A Worldwide Perspective by Roger Hood and Carolyn Hoyle, now in its Fifth Edition, is "widely regarded as the leading authority on the death penalty in its international context." The book explores the movement toward worldwide abolition of the death penalty, with an emphasis on international human right principles. It discusses issues including arbitrariness, innocence, and deterrence. Paul Craig, Professor of English Law at Oxford University, said of the fourth edition, "Its rigorous scholarship and the breadth of its coverage are hugely impressive features; its claim to 'worldwide' coverage is no idle boast. This can fairly lay claim to being the closest thing to a definitive source-book on this important subject."