The Worldwide Abolition of the Death Penalty

By: Liana Brown, April 25, 2022

Every day, people around the world are executed and sentenced to death as punishment for a variety of crimes – sometimes for acts that arguably should not even be criminalized.[1] However, this soon might change. On October 9th, 2021, the President of France, Emmanuel Macron, announced that as part of its upcoming Presidency of the European Union, France will launch a campaign for the worldwide abolition of the death penalty.[2] Although many countries around the world no longer use capital punishment, several large nations including China, Iran, and the United States maintain it.[3] Despite growing concerns of the death penalty constituting a “cruel and unusual punishment” under the 8th Amendment, according to the Amnesty International 2019 report, the United States is responsible for the 6th largest number of executions in the world.[4]

The death penalty was at one time outlawed in the U.S. for a brief period after the 1972 Supreme Court decision in Furman v. Georgia.[5] However, it was reinstated after the 1976 decision in Gregg v. Georgia, and it has been legal ever since.[6] Although the death penalty is currently authorized by 27 states, by the federal government, and the U.S. military, in recent years, many states have legislatively abolished it, replacing it with a sentence of life imprisonment with the possibility for parole.[7] This change accurately represents the American publics’ shift in perception. Today, the percentage of Americans who are in favor of the death penalty, generally, has fallen to 45-year lows.[8]When given an alternative, for the first time in at least 30 years, more people said life imprisonment with no possibility of parole was a better punishment than the death penalty.[9] Despite this, in July of 2021, the United States carried out its first federal execution in 17 years.[10] Since then, the Trump administration executed 13 inmates, which is more than three times as many as the federal government had in the previous six decades.[11]  

For most opponents of the death penalty, moral, philosophical, and religious beliefs are at the heart of their position. Perhaps the most basic is reverence for the sanctity of life.[12] Some may argue that the death of the offender affirms the sanctity of life. It is difficult to understand, however, how killing people teaches that killing is wrong.[13] Some justify the death penalty on a notion of justice that requires the punishment to fit the crime. In other words, it must be a “life-for-a-life” and one must forfeit his/her life if that individual intentionally causes the death of another person.[14] But, we do not amputate the hand of someone who steals or use beating as a punishment for someone convicted of assault.[15] Lastly, some argue that the death penalty provides a deterrent to murder. However, such deterrence assumes that people who murder know what they are doing and think about the punishment before acting, make their decisions rationally and act accordingly.[16] The majority of murders, however, are committed when there is little thought given to the possible consequences of the act.[17] Even more, if the death penalty was a successful deterrent, one would expect to find decreases in the homicide rate. However, an analysis by the New York Times in 2000 found that, from 1980-2000, the homicide rates in U.S. States with the death penalty had been 48%-101% higher than in states without the death penalty.[18]

In reality, many innocent people have continuously been convicted of crimes and sentenced to the death penalty. The large number of death row exonerations (185 people compared to the 1,532 executed since 1973) speaks to its unreliable nature.[19] “We have seen a major shift in terms of international and national opinions about the death penalty as people have begun to realize that we exonerate an enormous number of people on death row,” the President of the American Civil Liberties Union has said.[20] “We are getting it wrong. We are sentencing people to death, when they are innocent, at a very high rate.”[21] There is also substantial evidence that factors other than the crime itself, namely race and economic status, greatly influence who gets executed and who does not.[22] In the U.S., while making up about 13% of the population, African-Americans account for 41% of death row inmates, meaning that the death penalty most likely violates the constitutional guarantee of equal protection.[23]  Finally, The cost of enacting the death penalty with the necessary legal safeguards is greater than life imprisonment.[24] U.S. research has consistently shown that the extra precautions, such as appeals, made necessary by the possibility of executing an innocent person, have resulted in executions being more costly than keeping the individual in prison for life.[25]Although not without faults, punishments such as life in prison would be more beneficial to general welfare, as it is more cost effective than capital punishment and provides an opportunity so that if a sentencing mistake is made, it may be fixed. Once in use everywhere and for a wide variety of crimes, the death penalty today is generally forbidden by law and widely abandoned in practice in most countries outside the United States. It will be interesting to follow the progression of this initiative, as the unmistakable worldwide trend is now toward the complete abolition of capital punishmen

[1] Amnesty International, Death Penalty (2021),

[2] Vincent Manancourt, Macron To Use EU Presidency to Push for Worldwide End of Death Penalty, POLITICO (Oct. 9, 2021, 3:02 PM),

[3] Id.

[4] Reality Check Team, Death Penalty: How Many Countries Still Have It?, BBC NEWS: WORLD (Dec. 11, 2020),

[5] Staff Writer, Chronology of Capital Punishment, PBS FRONTNLINE, (Mar. 10, 1995),

[6] Id.

[7] Staff Writer, States and Capital Punishment, NATIONAL CONFERENCE OF STATE LEGISLATURE (Aug. 11, 2021),

[8] Jeffrey M. Jones, Americans Now Support Life in Prison Over Death Penalty, GALLUP (Nov. 25, 2019),

[9] Id 

[10] Nicole Daniels, Should the Death Penalty be Abolished?, THE NEW YORK TIMES (July 22, 2021),

[11] Id.

[12] Staff Writer, The Death Penalty: Any Nation’s Shame, THE JOHN HOWARD SOCIETY OF ONTARIO (March 2021),

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Masood Farivar, More Innocent People Than Previously Known Came Cloe to Being Executed, Study Finds, VOA NEWS (Feb. 19, 2021, 2:54 AM),

[20] Staff Writer, U.S. Stands Alone in North America Death Penalty, AMERICAN BAR ASSOCIATION (Feb. 6, 2018),  

[21] Id.

[22] Writer, supra note 12, at 3.

[23] Hugo A. Bedau, The Case Against the Death Penalty, ACLU (2012),

[24] Writer, supra note 12, at 3.

[25] Id.

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