Death Penalty Worldwide



Roger Hood and Carolyn Hoyle reflect on the movement towards worldwide abolition of the death penalty

Today sees the publication by Oxford University Press of the 5th edition of Roger Hood and Carolyn Hoyle’s book, The Death Penalty: A Worldwide Perspective. Followers of the excellent blog hosted by Cornell University’s Death Penalty Worldwide website, and their active twitter feed, may be forgiven for thinking that the picture is rather depressing for abolitionists. As most of us in the US and Europe were welcoming tidying up after our New Years Eve parties, Iran was busy executing 14 people, including four women, and carrying out a punitive amputation of a man’s hand in a prison near Mashhad. In the week since New Years Day, Iran has executed at least another four prisoners, apparently following the trend set in 2014 for very high execution rates, rates that have increased since President Rouhani assumed office in August 2013.

Jordan brought us depressing news just before Christmas when it executed 11 Jordanian men by hanging, ending an eight-year de facto moratorium on the death penalty. A country that had provided a beacon of hope in that region had slipped back in line with its neighbours.

But particular concern has been expressed over Pakistan. Nine persons have been hanged in Pakistan since the lifting of the moratorium on capital punishment in the aftermath of the atrocious attack, in December 2014, on the school in Peshawar that left approximately 150 people dead, most of them children, and left scars within that community that will never heal. Pakistan’s response to terrorism is perhaps not surprising, given the fear that such acts can spread across not only the target nation but the whole world. Last night the world’s media expressed dismay and anger at the murders of 12 people, some of them high- profile journalists – in Paris in an act of Islamic terrorism. Instead of reacting with calls for the resumption of the death penalty, France and her European neighbours reached for their pencils to demonstrate the importance of freedom of speech. For a country that has been at the forefront of the abolitionist movement, this might be expected. But we need to remind ourselves that a few decades ago, this would not have been the case. These terrorists, once caught and convicted, would have been executed.

The attack on the staff of Charlie Hebdo, and the resulting demonstrations around Europe provide clear evidence of how far Europe has come since it enforced the death penalty. However, Europe no longer stands alone. As the fifth edition of The Death Penalty shows, there have been considerable changes in the use of capital punishment in all regions of the world over the past quarter of a century; changes which have shifted our pessimism towards increasing optimism that worldwide abolition may be achieved in the foreseeable future.

Since the end of 1988, the number of actively retentionist countries (by which we mean countries that have carried out judicial executions in the past 10 years) has declined from 101 to 39, while the number that has completely abolished the death penalty has almost trebled from 35 to 99, with 33 regarded as abolitionist in practice. In 2013 only 22 countries were known to have carried out an execution and the number that regularly executes a substantial number of its citizens has dwindled. Only seven nations executed an average of 20 people or more over the five year period from 2009 to 2013: China (by far the largest number), Iran (the highest per head of population), Iraq, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, the US, and Yemen. The change has been truly remarkable.

The dynamo for this new wave of abolition is the development of international human rights law and norms. Arising in the aftermath of the Second World War and linked to the emergence of countries from totalitarian imperialism and colonialism, the acceptance of international human rights principles transformed consideration of capital punishment from an issue to be decided solely or mainly as an aspect of national criminal justice policy to the status of a fundamental violation of human rights: not only the right to not to be arbitrarily deprived of life but the right to be free from cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment or treatment. The idea that each nation has the sovereign right to retain the death penalty as a repressive tool of its domestic criminal justice system on the grounds of its purported deterrent utility (for which there is no convincing evidence) or the cultural preferences and expectations of its citizens was being replaced by a growing acceptance that countries that retain the death penalty – however they administer it – inevitably violate universally accepted human rights, as this new edition of The Death Penalty convincingly demonstrates yet again.

The human rights dynamic has not only resulted in fewer countries retaining the death penalty on their books, but also in the declining scope of the death penalty.   There has been a significant reduction in the range of offences for which the ultimate penalty can be imposed in many of those countries. Since the introduction of Safeguards Guaranteeing Protection of the Rights of those Facing the Death Penalty, which were first promulgated by the UN Economic and Social Council resolution 1984/50 and adopted by the General Assembly 30 years ago, there have been attempts to progressively restrict the use of capital punishment to the most heinous offences and the most culpable offenders and various measures to try to ensure that the death penalty is only applied where and when defendants have had access to a fair and safe criminal process. Hence, in many retentionist countries juveniles, the mentally ill and the learning disabled are exempt from capital punishment, and some countries restrict the death penalty to culpable homicide.

There has been some strong resistance to the political movement to force change ever since the Second Optional Protocol to the ICCPR was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1989. Attempts by the abolitionist nations at United Nations Congresses, in the General Assembly, beginning in 1994, and at the Commission on Human Rights, annually from 1997, to press for a resolution calling for a moratorium on the imposition of death sentences and executions met with hostility from many of the retentionist nations. By 2005, when an attempt had been made at the Commission on Human Rights to secure sufficient support to bring such a resolution before the United Nations, it had been opposed by 66 countries on the grounds that there was no international consensus that capital punishment should be abolished. Since then, as the resolution has been successfully brought before the General Assembly, the opposition has weakened as each subsequent vote was taken in 2007, 2008, 2010, and 2012, when 111 countries (60 per cent) voted in favour and 41 against. Just three weeks ago, 114 of the UN’s 193 member states voted in favour of the resolution which will go before the General Assembly Plenary for final adoption this month. The notion behind Human Rights 365 – that we are a part of a global community of shared values – is reflected in this increasing support for a worldwide moratorium as a further step towards worldwide abolition. We encourage all those who believe in human rights to continue working towards this ideal and not response to the fear caused by terrorism by reaching for the noose.

                -- Roger Hood and Carolyn Hoyle


The fifth edition of Roger Hood and Carolyn Hoyle’s The Death Penalty: A Worldwide Perspective is published on 8 January 2015. This completely up-to-date and substantially revised new edition of a highly praised study remains the most authoritative account of abolition and retention, and the use and administration of capital punishment in law and practice around the world.

Professor Roger Hood is Professor Emeritus of Criminology and an Emeritus Fellow of All Souls College, and former Director of the Centre for Criminology at the University of Oxford.

Professor Carolyn Hoyle is Director of the Centre for Criminology in the Faculty of Law and Fellow of Green Templeton College at the University of Oxford. @CarolynHoyle1


UK High Court of Justice says unlawful to extradite mentally ill man facing mandatory death penalty in Ghana

Our guest blogger is Zoe Bedford, Casework Lawyer at Reprieve.  Julian Knowles QC (Matrix Chambers) along with Rachel Barnes (Three Raymond Buildings) acted for Mr Gambrah, with the support of the Death Penalty Project and Reprieve.

Lord Justice Moses, sitting in the High Court in London, has ruled that the extradition of a mentally ill 34 year-old British father would breach his rights under Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits inhuman and degrading treatment, regardless of whether a moratorium is in place or not. Frank Gambrah, who spent over two years in prison awaiting the outcome of the extradition proceedings, was granted immediate release on 16 May 2014, when the judgment was handed down.

In August 2007, Mr. Gambrah, a British national, was accused of a murder outside a nightclub in Ghana’s capital Accra.  Unaware of the charges against him, Mr. Gambrah returned to the UK later in the year and was only arrested in 2009, when he arrived at Kotoka International Airport to visit his son, who was unwell. He was released on bail in February 2010 and returned to the UK.  In February 2012, five years after the murder took place, the Ghanaian Government requested the UK Government extradite Mr. Gambrah to Ghana to face trial for the alleged offence.

Ghana has not carried out any executions since 1990 but the death sentence remains mandatory for murder. The Ghanaian government offered various assurances that the death penalty would not be carried out, but in light of the mandatory nature of the death penalty, was unable to offer assurances that Mr. Gambrah would not be sentenced to death. It was also unable to explain when, how or by whom Mr. Gambrah’s sentence would be officially commuted. Mr. Gambrah was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and the Court agreed that there were serious doubts as to the ability of the Ghanaian prison system to provide adequate mental health treatment for Mr. Gambrah.

The key question for the Court, therefore, was whether the circumstances of Mr. Gambrah’s imprisonment in Ghana would constitute inhuman and degrading treatment contrary to article 3, given that, if convicted, he would be sentenced to death, even with the assurances he had that he would not be executed and the de facto moratorium in Ghana.

Ultimately the Court found that it would be inhuman and degrading to expose someone with Mr. Gambrah’s mental health problems to the legal limbo of being sentenced to death without knowing when, whether or how his sentence would ever be commuted.

Lord Justice Moses went on to express grave doubts as to whether an extradition should go ahead in any case where the nature of a person’s sentence is so uncertain, as to do so would also amount to inhuman and degrading treatment. In his view, sentencing a person to death without taking into account the particular facts of the offence or his own personal circumstances and leaving him to rely only on the mercy of the president, was also in breach of the right to a fair trial, and should itself present a further barrier to extradition.

In addition, under section 91 of the Extradition Act 2003 the Court considered it to be unjust and oppressive to extradite Mr. Gambrah in light of his poor mental health and the lack of adequate psychiatric treatment in Ghanaian prisons.

The requesting state need only prove a prima facie case against an individual according to UK extradition laws, an extremely easy standard to satisfy and requiring little analysis of the case against the accused. However, there is compelling evidence that Mr. Gambrah was innocent of the murder, with alibi witnesses coming forward and the key prosecution witnesses since admitting under oath that they had been tortured and coerced into providing false statements to the police. Mr. Gambrah himself was beaten around the head so badly that his eardrum burst and he has suffered lasting hearing damage. Under such circumstances, it is hard to imagine that Mr. Gambrah would ever have been given a fair trial had he been extradited to Ghana, and it is surprising that his extradition could ever have been contemplated.

Under English law, the Secretary of State may approve the extradition of a suspect to face the death penalty on the most superficial evidence if he receives assurances that he will not actually be executed. It is to the credit of the Courts that such a potential miscarriage of justice which would have led to inhuman suffering of a mentally ill man has been averted in this case. But extradition laws in the UK still fall short of offering the level of protection against the death penalty that one would expect from a state claiming to promote worldwide abolition of the death penalty.

There are over 130 prisoners under sentence of death in Ghana, a number of whom have been there for ten years or more. There is a virtually world-wide consensus against the use of the mandatory death penalty, even in countries where the death penalty is in use, yet Ghana stands as one of a tiny number of countries to have retained the mandatory death penalty for murder. It is essential that abolitionist states do not unintentionally legitimise the death penalty by allowing extradition to retentionist states under any circumstances.

    -- Zoe Bedford

 For further information, see Death Penalty Worldwide’s report  on capital punishment in Ghana here


Uganda Conducts Resentencing Hearings in the Wake of the Kigula Decision

Our guest blogger, Tanya Murshed, is the Uganda Project Director for the Centre of Capital Punishment Studies and is a practicing barrister at 1 Mitre Court Buildings in London. 

In April 2013, I left my practice in London for eight months to volunteer for the Centre for Capital Punishment Studies’ (CCPS) Capital Mitigation Project in Kampala. CCPS is based at the University of Westminster in London and undertakes numerous pioneering activities within the field of the death penalty and penal research.

The CCPS Uganda Capital Mitigation Project was started in 2011, in the aftermath of the landmark Supreme Court Judgment of Attorney General v Susan Kigula and 417 others, which abolished the mandatory death penalty. The Supreme Court decided two main points of law. Firstly, for all those who had been sentenced under the mandatory death sentence regime, their death sentences were to be commuted to life imprisonment without remission if they had waited three years or more for the executive to process their petition of mercy, following confirmation of their conviction by the Supreme Court. Secondly, those individuals who were still in the process of appealing their capital conviction would have their cases remitted back to the High Court for re-sentencing. The individuals affected by this aspect of the ruling are known as the “Kigula beneficiaries.” Accordingly, sentencing judges were given the discretion to impose the death penalty or some other form of punishment on the basis of mitigation put forward by, or on behalf of the defendant.  

When I arrived in Uganda, approximately 60 individuals had gone back for mitigation since the judgment in 2009, in a somewhat haphazard way. The re-sentencing process had proved more difficult than anticipated, as many of the files were in different courts around the country and some of the judges who presided over the original trials had since retired or died. The Project was able to assist in a number of those initial cases, leading to the release of some inmates, and fixed term sentences for others. However, some of the sentences passed attracted much criticism for leniency and inconsistency. A Kigula Task force, formed in 2012, decided to adopt a more systematic approach to the re-sentencing process for the remaining beneficiaries by introducing special mitigation sessions where judges would apply formal Sentencing Guidelines. 

It was clear from visits to Luzira Prison in Kampala, where all of the Kigula beneficiaries were located, that we were the only project trying to assist the remaining beneficiaries who had been held in the condemned section without a sentence for many years.   

Having forged a new partnership with the Uganda Law Society and Justice Centres Uganda, we approached the Kigula Task Force to see how we could assist.  A special session was planned for all Kigula cases whose files had been sent back to the High Court. Ten judges, ten defense advocates and ten prosecutors were selected to participate in the mitigation and sentencing of 136 beneficiaries. Our project was heavily involved in this process and we were identified as a key stakeholder by the Kigula Task Force.

We provided assistance in a number of ways, including obtaining secretarial support from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) so that case files could be photocopied for all parties and acting as a liaison between the prisons and the courts.  We provided training to lawyers and judges in the principles of mitigation and international sentencing practice, and collected mitigating evidence through our student interns at Makerere Law School on behalf of the inmates.  

We also acted as amicus curiae by providing written representations on the legal issues affecting the sentencing of Kigula beneficiaries. The re-sentencing exercise was clearly a complicated one and a number of issues arose for consideration. One contentious matter was the relevance of post-conviction mitigation. Some of the prisoners had languished on death row for as long as 20 years and were inevitably different from the people they were on the day they were convicted, having undertaken several rehabilitative courses in prison.  We also assisted the judges with the definition of the ‘rarest of the rare’ case; the relevance of mental health problems (both pre and post-conviction); the sentencing of offenders who were minors at the time of the offense; whether the beneficiaries should be considered still on remand for the purposes of sentencing and the approach to sentencing victims of domestic violence who had murdered their spouses. These issues were novel to many judges and assistance was vital to ensuring the fairness of proceedings.

Notably, we piloted a scheme of Pre-sentence and Social Inquiry Reports and mental health assessments for every inmate appearing for re-sentencing.

Pre-sentence reports are used in other jurisdictions and indeed are mandatory in some countries for the most serious offenses. It was clear from observations at the Kampala High Court that judges were not being provided with sufficient background information about a defendant prior to sentencing Even after the launch of the first official Sentencing Guidelines in June 2013, which imposed a duty on the defense and prosecution to provide background information about an offender, detailed information was not being presented by either advocate. Importantly, any information put forward was of limited value to the court, as it was not sufficiently independent.

In conjunction with the Uganda Law Society, we obtained funding for social workers from the Democratic Governance Facility for the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social development to complete these reports. There were two groups of workers: the first group conducted interviews with the inmate and produced a pre-sentence report. These interviews focussed on obtaining information from the offender regarding his/her background; his/her progress in prison and the reasons for his/her offending behavior.  They also consulted various official documents such as medical reports and prison reports in order to address medical issues, progress and behavior in prison. The social workers conducted an independent assessment of the offender’s thinking, behavior and capacity to reform which was contained in the report.

The second stage of the exercise involved district social workers, also from the Ministry of Gender, who made inquiries in the offenders’ home villages, in order to gain further information about their background and to ascertain whether the offenders could be re-integrated into the community or re-located if released. These social workers provided Social Inquiry Reports.  

With respect to the mental health reports, we felt that these were of considerable importance for various reasons. International law prohibits the imposition of the death penalty on anyone suffering from mental illness or learning disability at the time of conviction, sentence, or execution. Furthermore, a person cannot be deemed incapable of reform without a psychiatric report.  Most inmates had not been examined by a psychiatrist on entry to prison and any previous assessments were completely out of date. We were also concerned that many of the beneficiaries were suffering from death row syndrome, having been in the condemned sections for years. These assessments were carried out by a consultant psychiatrist whose reports addressed not only mental health issues and learning difficulties, but medical problems as well.

Out of the 136 people that went for re-sentencing, 15 individuals were released, nine were given death sentences; one was given a Minister’s Order due to minority status; four were referred to a Psychiatric facility, 22 were given life sentences and 85 were given fixed terms of imprisonment.  

The session was a success in many ways. Apart from the 9 individuals who had their death sentences confirmed (which have since been appealed), 127 individuals finally left the condemned section of Luzira prison and some were released unconditionally back into the outside world after many years. It was a joyous occasion for a considerable number of the beneficiaries. However, it was clear from the hearings and subsequent judgments that judges applied an inconsistent approach to sentencing and that there were a number of issues that still had not been resolved. Some judges took irrelevant matters into account; there was a failure by some to understand the relevance of mental health issues at the sentencing stage; there was an inconsistent approach to post-conviction mitigation, a lack of understanding of the ‘rarest of the rare’ standard and a number of age-related issues. The pre-sentence reports received a mixed reception, with one judge describing them as ‘very very useful’ and some disregarding them altogether. With respect to the lawyers we trained, most of them welcomed our guidance and support but there were one or two who outright rejected it to the dismay of the many of the inmates. 

The second special session involving 93 individuals is due to start today. In order to improve upon the last session and ensure greater consistency, we held a workshop with judges, lawyers and other stakeholders to discuss the issues that arose in the last session as well as the importance of pre-sentence reports and mental health assessments. Further training has been provided for the social workers to improve upon the quality of pre-sentence and social inquiry reports on this occasion, which we hope will become an integral part of capital sentencing practice.

We hope that we will be able to continue to make progress and assist the judiciary and advocates in Uganda into the future, building capacity.  Although it took many years to start the re-sentencing process for most of the Kigula beneficiaries, that process has now begun and different parts of the judicial system are working together in ways not previously seen.  This will be of benefit not only to the Kigula beneficiaries, but to the Ugandan justice system as a whole. We have certainly been in a privileged position, able to assist not only the inmates but also advocates and the judiciary who have welcomed our support.  Looking to the future, we are hopeful that we will be able to continue to build capacity and contribute further to issues surrounding access to justice and law reform. 


-- Tanya Murshed


For further background, Death Penalty Worldwide’s research on capital punishment in Uganda is available here.


Capital Punishment in Ethiopia

As part of its ongoing review of the death penalty in Sub-Saharan Africa, Death Penalty Worldwide recently updated its report on the death penalty in Ethiopia.

The death penalty is rarely applied in Ethiopia, but there is considerable resistance to the prospect of abolishing capital punishment, and in the past few years Ethiopia reaffirmed its commitment to the death penalty before the UN. Since 2007, the UN General Assembly has voted four times in favor of a resolution to impose a global moratorium on executions—and with each successive resolution, more states have joined the ranks of those opposed to the application of the death penalty. Despite having only carried out two executions in the past sixteen years, Ethiopia is among a minority of states to have voted against all four Resolutions – along with the states which have the highest execution numbers in the world, such as China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. (A favorable vote was recorded in 2008 but the Ethiopian delegates later declared that there had been an error and that they had intended to vote against.)

The last two executions in Ethiopia were carried out in 2007 and 1998 respectively. Both executed prisoners had been convicted of assassinating a high ranking government or military official. It is entirely possible that the political ramifications of these offenses were decisive in the authorities’ decision to enforce the death sentences. Meanwhile, however, Ethiopian courts continue to hand down death sentences for offenses which fall short of such exceptional circumstances.  In addition to murder, the criminal code mandates the death penalty for aggravated robbery (even when it doesn’t lead to death), treason and espionage, and military offenses.  Ethiopian courts hand down death sentences almost every year and we estimate that there are currently around 120 prisoners under sentence of death.

Based on the country’s recent record, it is likely that the majority of these death sentences will not be carried out. For the country’s growing number of death row inmates, this may mean a reprieve, but it also means a de facto sentence of indefinite imprisonment. Year after year, under life-threatening conditions of detention, death row inmates in Ethiopia – as in many countries with de facto moratoria on executions – face a future in an uncertain limbo between life and death.


-- Delphine Lourtau



Uganda Update: Efforts to Streamline Capital Trials Raise Due Process Concerns, While Other Prisoners Await New Sentencing Hearings Nine Years After Landmark Decision

Death Penalty Worldwide recently updated its research on the death penalty in Uganda.  Our research shows that although Uganda has not carried out any executions since 2005, courts continue to impose death sentences for a variety of offenses.  We estimate that there are at least 293 individuals currently under sentence of death, and many more who are awaiting trial on death-eligible offenses.  In order to handle the large number of capital cases on remand, the Justice Law and Order Sector launched a program of targeted and intensified capital trials to reduce the average time capital offenders spend in pretrial detention. High Court judges are under an obligation to hear thirty cases and sentence fifty to sixty defendants in a 40-day session. Observers have expressed concern about the protection of fair trial principles in such an expedited system.  

In a watershed development, the mandatory death penalty was deemed unconstitutional in Uganda by the Constitutional Court in 2005 in Susan Kigula and 416 others v. The Attorney General.  Over the last nine years, the courts have made slow but steady progress in their efforts to comply with the Kigula judgment by providing resentencing hearings for each prisoner given a mandatory death sentence.  In 2013, the Constitution Sentencing Guidelines for Courts of Judicature Practice Directions set out mitigating factors for all judges to consider during resentencing hearings.  These factors include considerations such as the age of the individual at the time of the crime, mental health issues and demonstrated potential for rehabilitation. As of April 2014, 196 of the “Kigula beneficiaries” have been resentenced—a laudable development.  Nevertheless, around 192 individuals are still waiting to be resentenced and have already spent 9 years in prison under constitutionally invalid sentences.  

- Shubra Ohri


Oklahoma’s Execution Process: Unlawful, Inhumane, and Immoral

Last night, Oklahoma executed Clayton Lockett using a combination of drugs that had never before been used to kill a human being.  Oklahoma refused to disclose the source of the drugs in the weeks leading up to the execution, dismissing attorneys’ concerns that using the untested drugs could cause an excruciatingly painful death.  The Oklahoma Supreme Court issued a short-lived stay of execution, but then backed down after pressure from the Oklahoma Governor (who said she would disregard the Court’s stay order) and Oklahoma legislators (who threatened to impeach the justices).

The sequence of events leading to Lockett’s death has been described by a number of sources, including the New York Times.  There is no dispute that Lockett died an agonizing death.  He was executed using a three-drug combination that included midazolam, pancuronium bromide, and potassium choride.  The first drug, midazolam, should have rendered him unconscious, but it failed to do so—either because it wasn’t administered in a high enough dose, or because it was not properly injected into one of his veins.  The second drug, pancuronium bromide, should have paralyzed him so that he couldn’t move.  Yet Lockett was still moving after more than 13 minutes had passed—and by some accounts, he was writhing in pain, grimacing, speaking, and struggling to sit up.  The third drug, potassium chloride, causes a massive heart attack that experts say would cause unbearable pain if the prisoner is not sedated.  In fact, Clayton Lockett died of a heart attack 43 minutes after the drugs were first injected into his body.

Attorneys around the country have fought to persuade the courts that they should not permit executions to go forward in the absence of evidence that lethal injection drugs are reliable and effective.  Courts in Texas, Oklahoma, and Missouri, among other states, have rejected these arguments, largely because of a U.S. Supreme Court decision called Baze v. Rees.  In Baze, the Supreme Court dismissed the petitioner’s argument that poorly trained prison staff could administer improper doses of the sedative that renders a prisoner unconscious.  In essence, the Supreme Court held that an execution method that results in pain, “either by accident or as an inescapable consequence of death,” does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment.  The Court shifted the burden to the prisoner to establish that “the State’s lethal injection protocol creates a demonstrated risk of severe pain.”

Baze must now be re-examined.  The botched execution of Clayton Lockett calls for effective judicial oversight of state lethal injection protocols.  Moreover, there can be little doubt that an execution procedure that results in prolonged agony for the prisoner is not only inhumane, it is torturous. 

More than 20 years ago, in Ng v. Canada, the United Nations Human Rights Committee held that executing prisoners using the gas chamber constituted cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.  Their rationale:  “asphyxiation may cause prolonged suffering and agony and does not result in death as swiftly as possible, as asphyxiation by cyanide gas may take over 10 minutes.”  In light of the 43 minutes that it took Clayton Lockett to die, there can be little doubt that his execution violated international norms providing that the death penalty can only be carried out in a manner that causes “the least possible physical and mental suffering.” 

Given the evidence that Oklahoma's actions violated the Torture Convention, President Obama should ensure that an impartial investigation is carried out under Article 12 of the Convention.


-- Sandra Babcock



The Impact of the Death Penalty on Defense Lawyers

Our guest blogger, Susannah Sheffer, is the author of Fighting for Their Lives: Inside the Experience of Capital Defense Attorneys, and has worked for the past decade as staff writer at Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights. 

Having worked for years with families of murder victims and families of people who have been executed, I have spent many hours listening and trying to learn as much as I can about the impact of both murder and the death penalty. More recently, I got curious about how capital defense attorneys fit into this emotional landscape, particularly those attorneys who have lost clients to execution. When I began interviewing attorneys and exploring the impact of the immense responsibility and loss that is inherent in their work, it became clear that this was largely unexplored territory. Capital defense attorneys don't tend to talk openly about how their work affects them and what it is like, personally, to do what they do and see what they see. 

The book Fighting for Their Lives, which came out last year, is the result of interviews with 20 post-conviction capital defense attorneys in the United States. A few weeks ago, Penal Reform International invited me to contribute a short briefing paper on the topic. It was meant to be a summary of the material in Fighting for Their Lives, but given that PRI is an international organization, it made sense to include voices from lawyers in other countries as well. Despite the differences in some aspects of the death penalty and of capital defense, it seems to me that the emotional impact on the attorneys is essentially the same. Here is the paper that PRI published earlier this month:


-- Susannah Sheffer


The Death Penalty in Iran – No Improvement and Broken Promises

Despite a change in leadership and the introduction of an amended penal code, Iran’s aggressive use of the death penalty continues unabated. Our recent assessment of Iran (which you can read here) confirms that hundreds of people are regularly executed every year.  Furthermore, Iran has resumed secretly executing large groups of people, after temporarily halting the practice in 2011 due to international criticism.  The number of people executed in one occasion has been as high as 50.

Amendments to the Islamic Penal Code in 2013 did not limit the application of the death penalty.  On the contrary, the Penal Code retained the death penalty for most crimes that were previously death-eligible and added a few more.  It expanded upon the category of national security crimes, including vaguely worded crimes like “sowing corruption” and “armed rebellion,” which further criminalize political dissent.   The Penal Code also continues to treat some “crimes” as capital offences even though they do not meet the “most serious” standard under international law, which requires that capital offenses result in the death of a person.  Particularly troubling, the amended Penal Code retains stoning as a possible method of execution for individuals convicted of adultery and apostasy.

Iran continues to be the world’s biggest executioner of child offenders, despite requests from the former head of judiciary in 2003 and 2008 that judges not issue execution verdicts for children under eighteen. Based on reports by non-governmental organizations, we estimate that nineteen juveniles have been executed in the past five years. Although the Iranian government has stated that the amended Penal Code abolishes the execution of children, it only prohibits the execution of children for drug offenses and other “discretionary crimes.”  Article 91 of the amended Islamic Penal Code permits the execution of juveniles for other offenses, such as crimes under shariah, if judges deem that the juvenile is mature enough to understand the nature and consequences of the offense. Iran Human Rights has reported that just last month, one person was executed for a murder allegedly committed when he was 17.[1]

The new Islamic Penal Code amendments do nothing to improve the administration of the death penalty in Iran.  Individuals can be executed for a great number of crimes with minimal due process protections.  Iran, regrettably, continues to steer further and further away from compliance with its international human rights obligations.


-- Shubra Ohri

[1] Iran Human Rights, Execution of a minor offender in Iran,, Mar. 7, 2014. 


The Consequences of Wrongfully Convicting the World’s Longest Serving Death Row Inmate

Iwao Hakamada, a man widely believed to be the world’s longest serving death row inmate, may have been serving time for nothing at all.  On March 27, 2014, the Shizouka District Court in Japan suspended his sentence because new evidence suggests that he was wrongfully convicted.  Mr. Hakamada was sentenced to death in 1968 for murder, but new DNA evidence points to his innocence, leading many to believe that his original conviction was based on falsified evidence.  The Court released Hakamada from the Tokyo Detention House after his petition for a retrial was granted.  To date, Hakamda has served nearly 50 years on death row; 30 of those years were spent in solitary confinement.  Hakamada is not the first person in Japan to be wrongfully convicted, but his case exemplifies the abhorrent consequences of violations to the right to a fair trial.

Hakamada’s retrial represents the 6th time since 1945 that the courts in Japan have granted a retrial in a death penalty case. Incidences of wrongful convictions are being uncovered more frequently in Japan.  This may be on account of pretrial detentions in police custody, the daiyo kangoku system, which can lead to lengthy interrogations.  The United Nations Committee Against Torture has expressed concern about the system, stating that the lack of effective monitoring and reported abuse raised concerns about human rights violations.  Indeed, physical and psychological torture during interrogations  is a significant source of false confessions.  Iwao Hakamda’s interrogation lasted for 20 days, and although he confessed during the interrogation, he ultimately claimed he was innocent at trial. About half of the people on death row in Japan claim they are not guilty of all or part of the charges for which they have been convicted.

If exonerated, Hakamada has a right to compensation under Japanese and international law.  Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights protects the right to compensation, which can be satisfied in several ways.  Conferring discretion to a judicial body to determine compensation is the means that Japan has chosen to fulfill its obligations under the ICCPR.  Article 40 of the Japanese Constitution stipulates that courts will decide the amount of compensation as provided by law.  The Criminal Compensation Act further provides that the amount of compensation shall be determined after considering the length of detention, mental and physical loss suffered, and negligence by the police and prosecutors.

Hakamada’s resentencing, accompanied by public outrage, will add further ammunition to the movement for criminal justice reform in Japan.  For more information on wrongful convictions under international law, see the Death Penalty Worldwide’s post on innocence and wrongful convictions here.

-- Shubra Ohri


The World’s Top Executioner: Capital Punishment in China

Death Penalty Worldwide has just updated its research on capital punishment in China. China executes thousands of people every year, but it’s difficult to provide exact figures because of the secrecy surrounding executions.  Another non-governmental organization, the Dui Hua Foundation, estimates that China executed 3000 people in 2013—more than the rest of the world put together.  

The number of executions in China is particularly troubling in light of reports that capital defendants do not receive fair trials according to international standards. Suspects are sometimes denied access to attorneys, lawyers are barred from representing certain clients, and courts withhold evidence in politically sensitive cases. Moreover, defendants are presumed guilty and must prove their innocence, with the result that 99.9% of criminal defendants are found guilty.  Appeals are rarely successful. Recent cases have also raised the concern that the death penalty is applied primarily against the poor. In September 2013, an impoverished street vendor who claimed to have stabbed two officers in self-defense during an interrogation was executed for murder. His attorney maintains that key evidence was missing during his trial. In contrast, Gu Kailai, the wife of former Politburo member Bo Xilai and daughter of a revolutionary general, was given a suspended death sentence in August 2012 on grounds of mental illness after being convicted of planning and carrying out the murder of a foreign businessman.

Despite China’s seeming enthusiasm for the death penalty, the country has enacted important reforms in recent years aimed at reducing the total number of executions.  In 2007, the Supreme People’s Court reclaimed its right to review every death sentence, after which the estimated number of executions was reduced by half. China took a further step away from the death penalty in 2011 by reducing the number of death-eligible crimes from 68 to 55 and banning the death penalty against those aged over 75 in an amendment to the Criminal Law. Recently, the president of the Supreme People’s Court publicly urged courts to hand out fewer death sentences. China may be far from abolishing capital punishment, but these are noteworthy reforms for the world’s top executioner.

Although the Chinese government is striving to curb its use of the death penalty through legal reform, it has yet to ratify any international treaties that impose restrictions on the use of the death penalty. China is not a party to the ICCPR and has repeatedly voted against the UN General Assembly’s Moratorium on the Death Penalty Resolution. Even in the absence of international commitments, China should enact reforms that will enhance fair trial protections and reduce the arbitrary application of the death penalty. The extent to which Chinese leaders are willing to implement additional domestic reforms will be paramount in China’s efforts to reduce the volume of executions.

-- Jee Won Oh

You can access Death Penalty Worldwide’s full research on capital punishment in China here.