America ‘out of love’ with the death penalty

More Americans than ever are opposed to executions, writes Paul Keenan

Here are two easy predictions for 2014: In January of this year, Michael Wilson, Kenneth Hogan, Billy Irick, Dennis McGuire, Edgardo Cubas and Herbert Smulls will die. Meanwhile, Rigoberto Avila will not.

Far from a newly received gift of prescience, The Irish Catholic’s ease with prediction in relation to the named persons comes from the United States’ own list of people scheduled for death by execution this year. The first of these seven, Wilson, held in the state of Oklahoma, is due for execution on January 9. Avila, whose execution was set for January 15 has been stayed for now.

The January list of death row inmates with ‘appointments’ in the death chamber in fact numbers eight, but the case of Edgar Tamayo, perhaps the most high profile of all, is harder to predict at this point following the second intervention, in mid-December, of Secretary of State John Kerry in the case.

Living illegally

Tamayo’s case has garnered much attention from the fact, that, as a foreign national – living illegally in the US state of Texas  – he should, under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, have been given the opportunity to contact the Mexican consulate for assistance in his murder case but was not. The omission was, not unexpectedly, seized upon by Tamayo’s lawyer as reason enough to halt his execution while his case was reheard towards determining if the defendant’s position was negatively affected by that very omission.

Now, Secretary of State John Kerry has again highlighted the case based on concerns for the United States’ own ability to offer assistance to its nationals overseas if it is found wanting in the treatment of foreigners in its own prison system. His appeal to Texas legislators on this basis is another weapon for Tamyo’s defence in arguing for at least a 30-day stay of execution for legal arguments to be heard. (Tamayo’s case is just one of 51 cited by the International Court of Justice wherein the Vienna Convention was allegedly breached by the US.) Despite all of these factors, at the time The Irish Catholic went to press, the state of Texas was not for turning, and Tamayo’s execution date remains January 22.

In committing his crime in Texas, Edgar Tamayo entered a legal system allowing for execution shared by 32 states across America today.

In October, the Death Penalty Information Centre released a report on death sentences in America. That report, The 2% Death Penalty, is named for the percentage of US counties – not states – which are responsible for the majority of death sentences carried out since the re-introduction of the death penalty in America in 1976.

In a review of death row cases over the last 40 years, the report shows that while all state executions in that time originated in just 15% of US counties and the nation’s 3,108 death row inmates come from 20% of US counties, the majority in both cases are drawn from a mere 2% of counties nationwide. The revelation is a staggering indictment of the (mal)practice of justice in certain corners of America. The report offer the example of Maricopa County in Arizona which “had four times the number of pending death penalty cases as Los Angeles or Houston on a per capita basis. The District Attorney responsible for this aggressive use was recently disbarred for misconduct.”


The debate around such issues continues to rage, built on another fact not fully elucidated by the 2% report, yet central to the death penalty debate.

In the opening to The 2% Death Penalty, the authors assert: “The notion that America is strongly wedded to the death penalty is not supported by a review of its use over the past 40 years…The vast majority of counties in the US have no one on death row and have not had a case resulting in an execution in over 45 years.”

A cursory glance at figures for states clinging to the death penalty as the ultimate criminal sanction is instructive. While 18 states have rejected the use of the death penalty, and 32 still maintain this legal recourse, the figures have shifted since 1976 in favour of the rejectionist side, with six states abolishing the penalty in the period since 2006.

A closer examination, of actual execution figures, is also instructive. Since the year 2000, US executions have shown a decline (as have death sentences). According to the Death Penalty Information Centre, after a high of 98 executions in 1998, the rate dropped to ‘just’ 37 in 2008. (Numbers climbed to 46 executions in 2010 but have begun to fall once again, with 43 in both 2011 and 2012.)


The assertion that America is ‘out of love’ with the death penalty is borne out elsewhere. In a Gallup study, also released in October, it was revealed that while 60% of Americans still favour the death penalty for murder, this is the lowest level of support recorded by Gallup since 1972, and down from a high of 80% in 1994. (The research led to an interesting December article in The Atlantic in which author Andrew Cohen reported that no fewer than three US Supreme Court judges who had a hand in the 1976 re-introduction of executions, have since become pro-abolition.)


Such facts give some cause for celebration for those directly involved in fighting against the death penalty, not least the US bishops, whose 2005 document A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death led directly to the establishment of the Catholic Mobilising Network, an initiative today reaching 67 million people through outreach and educational programmes towards realising the full recognition of the dignity of all life called for by the bishops.

The war is not yet won, however. In its research, Gallup, which has been tracking death sentences since 1936, through the brief nationwide abolition between 1972 and ‘76, concedes that Americans’ support for executions rises and falls over time, meaning that the current 40-year low is by no means the end of the road for death sentences. And so, the campaigns for full abolition of America’s other culture of death will continue into 2014, even as a new raft of prisoners face their own end.