It was on July 2, 1976, in the case of Gregg vs. Georgia, that the Supreme Court cleared the way for the resumption of capital punishment in the United States. For the next quarter century, opponents of the death penalty had little to cheer as they watched in horror and impotence as the machinery of state killing gained speed amid seemingly overwhelming public support.
But there are signs that the tide is turning with surprising speed. Driven by mounting evidence of deep flaws in the application of the death penalty and fierce international criticism, a trend has emerged that may eventually lead to the end of capital punishment -- though at present debate centers on reform.
It could not come too soon for abolitionists. By 1999, according to data from Amnesty International, the United States was fifth in the world in the number of persons executed, topped only by China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Republic of Congo. If being in such sorry company were not embarrassing enough, last year the United States moved up to No. 2 behind China, which executes more prisoners than all other nations combined. Not only does the United States put people to death on a scale rivaled only by world-class human-rights violators; it also executes minors and mentally retarded persons. Even China has abolished the practice of executing minors; Yemen, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Iran and the United States alone fail to respect international law barring such executions. Two countries in the world execute the retarded: Uzbekistan and the United States.
It is for good reason that the death penalty is under siege along domestic and international fronts. In the last three weeks alone:
first World Conference for the Abolition of Capital Punishment was held June 21-23 in Strasbourg, France. Supported by the European parliament and leading international human-rights organizations, the conference launched an appeal to the 87 nations that maintain the death penalty in law or practice -- 124 countries have stopped applying capital punishment. The conference was a clear indication that the withering criticism President Bush faced in Europe regarding capital punishment is only the first shot in an international abolitionist campaign, with the United States its main target.
- On June 27, the International Court of Justice, the UN's highest judicial tribunal, ruled that the United States broke an international treaty when the state of Arizona executed two German brothers. At the time of their arrest and trial, the Germans were not notified of their right to consult with their country's diplomats in the United States.
- Opponents of capital punishment held the eighth annual fast and vigil in front of the U.S. Supreme Court last week. This year 300 people braved a storm to attend a concert by Nashville-based rocker Steve Earle. ``This is the biggest crowd we've ever had,'' said Earle. ``It's nowhere near as heartbreaking to be a part of this movement as it used to be.''
- On July 2, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a supporter of capital punishment, raised sharp questions about its application: ``If statistics are any indication, the system may well be allowing some innocent defendants to be executed.''
- The same day, Missouri joined the growing list of states to ban the execution of the mentally retarded.
Efforts to make capital punishment less arbitrary, such as the proposed Innocence Protection Act, which would create mandatory federal standards for lawyers appointed to capital cases, are commendable but fall far short. Capital punishment is fatally flawed because a definitive punishment assumes perfect justice, something human beings and the institutions they create never can achieve. Increasingly, the world will force this country to make this choice. It can be
the leading voice for democracy and human rights. Or it can be a world leader in executions. It cannot be both.
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