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2002 | 54th Regular Session of the UN Sub-Commission on Human Rights (July - August 2002)

Towards the abolition of the death penalty in the world

July-August 2002
Palais des Nations

Dominicans for Justice and Peace, Franciscans International and Pax Christi International, in conjunction with the North American Dominican Justice and Peace Promoters, wish to raise the issue of the death penalty. A number of Dominican congregations in the United States have adopted a corporate stance advocating the abolition of the death penalty. The stance is based both on their commitment to proclaiming justice and on their experience as prison chaplains and their work with the families and friends of victims.

Since 1997, the UN Commission on Human Rights has adopted resolutions asking for a moratorium on the death penalty. At present, over 109 of the 185 member states of the United Nations have called for an end to the death penalty or a moratorium on its practice. We also take note of some encouraging developments in respect to the death penalty in Kyrgyzstan, Guatemala, Turkey and the United States.


Recently, in its continuing effort to be perceived as a progressive nation, Kyrgyzstan extended a moratorium on death sentences and announced a plan for its gradual abolition. The extension was signed into law by President Askar Akayev in what officials said was a confirmation of the Central Asian nation’s “commitment to basic human rights and freedoms.” Also, Kyrgyzstan adopted a human rights program under which the death penalty could be abolished by 2010.


In July, 2002, before the arrival of Pope John Paul II in Guatemala, President Portillo announced that he would suspend the execution of 36 prisoners condemned to death. On the same day, the Government of Guatemala  presented a draft law in Congress for abolition, which was to be voted on within the next few days. Previously, President Portillo had stated that “the application of the death penalty was not dissuasive and did not succeed in diminishing violence.”


On August 2, 2002, the Parliament of Turkey voted to abolish the death penalty which is seen as a key step towards its ambition of joining the European Union and a sign it could go on to ratify a wide range of human rights reforms. The Turkish Parliament voted by 256 to 162 to abolish the death penalty in peacetime.

United States of America

In the United States, the Supreme Court recently issued key rulings, first, finding that executing those with mental retardation is cruel and unusual punishment, and thus unconstitutional. In another decision, the Supreme Court also found that the death penalty systems in states where a judge, and not a jury, assigns the death penalty violates the constitutional rights of those sentenced to death. Third, in another decision, US Judge Jeb Rakoff ruled in a Manhattan court, in July 2002, that the federal death penalty is unconstitutional. In his ruling, he stated that the federal death penalty act violated the constitutional rights of defendants and ran the risk of putting innocent people to death.

In the case of those with mental retardation, the US Supreme Court ruled  that mentally disabled killers (those with an IQ less that 70) could not be sentenced to death. The court deemed that such punishment was cruel and unusual and therefore unconstitutional. Although most states in the U.S. already banned the execution of the mentally handicapped, this ruling forces the other 20 states that allow the mentally handicapped to be executed to stop. The Supreme Court based this ruling on the fact that the mentally handicapped lack the intelligence to fully understand the severity of their crimes and therefore were less morally culpable for their actions. Likewise, the Court noted that the mentally handicapped were more likely to admit to crimes they did not commit.

In another recent development, Governor Parris N. Glendening of the State of Maryland became the second governor in the United States to impose a moratorium on the death penalty, after ordering a halt of an execution while a state-ordered University of Maryland study of capital punishment is completed and reviewed. In justifying his call for a one-year moratorium, Governor Glendening  cited reports showing that 101 death row inmates across the country have been exonerated since 1978, as well as concerns about racial and geographic disparities in Maryland, particularly Baltimore County. “Very serious questions have been raised about the system, about its impartiality,” he said, “particularly relative to race and especially the race of the victim.”

Discrimination in its application

In her seminal final working paper, “Discrimination in the criminal justice system”, Ms Le•la Zerrougui makes the following statement: “All the mechanisms for the monitoring or protection of human rights denounce the abnormally high rates of victimization and detention of Afro-Americans, Aborigines, Dalits, Roma, children of indigenous peoples and migrant workers and other communities stigmatized by age-old structural injustices in several regions of the world.” (E/CN.4/Sub.2/2002/5, note 41, page 20)

In calling for the abolition of the death penalty worldwide, we express our deep concern about its unjust and unequal application. In countries where the death penalty continues to be enacted, it is more likely to be applied in a racist manner, more likely to be applied to minorities and the underclasses in general. Poor people, disabled people and young people are more often subjected to capital punishment.

A case in point is the legal saga of Javier Suarez Medina, a young Mexican national scheduled for execution in Texas on August 14, 2002. Sentenced to death when he was only 19 years old, his case raises deeply troubling questions about the fairness of his trial and the ongoing refusal of Texas authorities to respect their binding international treaty obligations. After 13 years on death row, Javier Suarez Medina has now exhausted all normal avenues of legal appeal. Unless the courts or the Governor of Texas intervenes, he faces death by lethal injection – in ten days – despite mounting concerns over the reliability of his sentence.

A recent study of death penalty cases in the state of North Carolina in the 1990’s has found that the odds of getting a death sentence increased three and a half times if the victim was white rather than black.  “Sadly, this study shows that skin color still plays a major role in deciding who lives and who dies in our criminal justice system,” said ProfessorJack Boger of the University of North Carolina School of Law and the main author of the study, which was released in April 2002.

The study examined all 3,990 homicide cases in North Carolina from 1993 to 1997. Of the cases in which a death sentence was possible, 11.6 percent of non-white defendants charged with murdering white victims were sentenced to death. In contrast, 6.1 percent of whites charged with murdering whites and 4.7 percent of non-whites charged with murdering non-whites received the death penalty. In North Carolina, the non-white category generally refers to blacks and some Hispanics.

Professor Boger said the new study had found that the discrimination in death penalty cases was by prosecutors rather than juries. In fact, he said, what seems to have occurred is not that prosecutors sought the death penalty more often for black defendants but that they were more willing to let defendants plead guilty in exchange for a lesser sentence if the victim was black.


Independent studies also suggest that the death penalty does not lead to a decrease in capital crimes. A study conducted by the United Nations in 1988 and updated in 1996 stated that the fact that all the evidence continues to point in the same direction is persuasive a priori evidence that countries need not fear sudden and serious changes in the curve of crime if they reduce their reliance on the death penalty.

Furthermore, research has failed to provide scientific proof that executions have greater deterrent effect than life imprisonment and such proof is unlikely to be forthcoming. The evidence as a whole gives no positive support to a deterrent hypothesis.

Respect for all human life and the opposition to violence in our society are at the root of our long standing position against the death penalty. We see the death penalty as perpetuating a cycle of violence and promoting a sense of vengeance in our culture. To continue to enact the death penalty is to teach that violence and killing are acceptable ways of dealing with violence and killing. Restoration of society and the healing of victims, as well as reform and rehabilitation of the offenders, must be the goals of a criminal justice system.

Therefore, Dominicans for Justice and Peace, Franciscans International and Pax Christi International:

  • call on all governments to abolish the death penalty and to ratify the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on civil and political rights, which requires governments to put an end to capital punishment;
  • urge governments to seek alternatives to the death penalty that reflect intelligence, civility, compassion and justice;
  • encourage the UN Sub-Commission to undertake a comprehensive study on discrimination in the justice system;
  • support the moratorium called for by Pope John Paul II in a 1998 address, the call for the abolition of the death penalty by the US Bishops and the international initiative, Moratorium Now, a movement organized to suspend all executions.
  • recommend that the UN Sub-Commission, with due respect of its mandate, examine the case of Javier Suarez Medina for possible action on the part of this body before his execution on August 14, 2002.
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