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Death penalty makes a comeback in US

Amien Essif
November 23, 2016

A new law in the state of California will expedite executions of death row inmates. After a decade of decline, the death penalty may be regaining lost ground in the US.

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Image: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Buck

Bucking a national trend of decreasing popularity of the death penalty, the practice's supporters have won yet another victory in the US. A late count on Tuesday showed that California voters have approved a proposition to make executions easier in the country's most populated state.

The ballot measure, known as Proposition 66, will limit the possibility of challenging a death sentence, and will increase the number of lawyers and courtrooms available to deal with these challenges.

A bad month for abolitionists

Proposition 66 wasn't the only turn in favor of capital punishment this month. Ballot measures in Oklahoma and Nebraska moved to secure the punishment for their courts, and the nation elected a strong proponent of the death penalty - Donald Trump - as the next president.

In Oklahoma, voters chose to protect capital punishment by amending the state's constitution. The new amendment aims to make it impossible for state courts to block executions by ruling they violate the US Constitution which forbids "cruel and unusual punishment". It is the first state to enshrine the death penalty this way.

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The execution chamber at the Oklahoma State PenitentiaryImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo

Nebraskan voters turned against their lawmakers to reinstate capital punishment. In May 2015, the state's legislature passed a bill to abolish the practice, but a ballot measure in November succeeded in repealing the bill with a 60 percent majority.

Tuesday's vote count was not the only blow to death penalty opponents in California. A separate ballot question aiming to replace death row with life in prison as the gravest sentence was defeated by an 8 point margin.

Clinging to the death penalty

The US is the only G7 country to maintain the death penalty. According to the latest report from Amnesty International, the only countries to have executed more people than the US in 2015 were China, Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia.

Nevertheless, the practice is in decline in the US. Fewer people were put to death by American courts in 2015 than in any year since 1991. Only six states carried out these executions, putting a total of 23 prisoners to death. In addition, the number of death sentences handed down by courts has also been in decline for some time. US courts sentenced 52 people to death in 2015, the lowest number since 1977.

Recent polls have shown that public opinion on capital punishment has followed this anti-death penalty trend. A national survey conducted last year by the Pew Research Center found that 42 percent of Americans opposed the death penalty. That may not be a majority, but it is the strongest support for abolition since 1972, the year that the US Supreme Court put a ban on the practice which lasted for five years.

Infografik Länder mit Todesstrafe Englisch

A come-back in 2016

With the pro-death penalty measures in California, Nebraska and Oklahoma, proponents of the practice have been reassured that it is not on its way out.

"California voters have spoken loud and clear that they want to keep the death penalty intact," said Sacramento county District Attorney Ann Marie Schubert in a statement after the anti-death penalty Proposition 62 was defeated. She saw the vote as "a fight for justice on behalf of victims to ensure that our death penalty works."

The election of Trump has also reassured Americans that capital punishment is here to stay. During the campaign, the President-elect said in an interview with Fox News that the death penalty "should be brought back and it should be brought back strong," referring to states like New York where it has been outlawed.

Infografik Todesstrafe USA ENG

What Trump could do

Trump's effect on capital punishment law would likely come down to his effect on the Supreme Court. Opponents have looked to the high court to rule against the death penalty in a repeat of the 1972 repeal. Now, such a sweeping change is more of a long shot than ever with Trump likely to fill late Justice Antony Scalia's seat with another pro-death penalty conservative. The Court's two senior liberal members Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 83, and Stephen G. Breyer, 78, are certainly nearing the end of their careers and may leave more vacancies for Trump to fill before the end of his term.

Even without support from the Supreme Court, however, the movement against the death penalty is looking to abolish it at the state level - as Illinois did in 2011, followed by Connecticut in 2012, and Maryland in 2013.

The future of the death penalty in the US is uncertain, but on a global level, it appears to be on its way out. Amnesty International noted on its website that their organization has been "working to end executions since 1977, when only 16 countries had abolished the death penalty". That number today has increased to 140, representing two-thirds of all nations.