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Death penalty

October 10, 2011

Monday marks the World day Against the Death Penalty. Deutsche Welle spoke to an expert at Amnesty International about the recent Troy Davis' execution and the gulf between the US and Europe on the death penalty.

death cell
Troy Davis' execution caused international protestsImage: AP

The annual World Day Against the Death Penalty was originally set up in 2003 by a coalition of international NGOs, bar associations, unions and local governments from all over the world.

The recent execution of Troy Davis drew international attention and provoked protests and online petitions because of claims by Davis' advocates that he may have been innocent.

Deutsche Welle spoke to Sumit Bhattacharyya, US expert at human rights group Amnesty International in Germany about the disputed case, US attitudes and the gap between the US and Europe when it comes to the death penalty.

Deutsche Welle: How do you explain the decision to execute Davis?

Sumit Bhattacharyya: In the US, there are several factors, that often have nothing to do with the crime, that decide if an accused is sentenced to death or not. An important factor is the quality of the defense lawyer. Inmates on death row cannot choose their own lawyers so they are assigned lawyers who are paid - often not very well - by the state. Many of them are simply incapable of dealing with cases of capital punishment.

Another factor is race and racial discrimination. If you look at statistics on executions, particularly when the victims of violent crimes are white, the accused are three times more likely to be sentenced to death than in cases where African Americans are killed. So, unfortunately, it shows that there is racism in the system.

Thirdly, the public perception of violent crime is influenced by the way it's covered in large sections of the American media. Of course, there is violent crime in the US which is linked to a lack of gun control. But fear makes people believe that the death penalty can be a deterrent to crimes. However there are plenty of studies and evidence that contradict that.

How do you see the situation overall in the US when it comes to the death penalty?

I actually think the situation is improving in the US. For one, support for capital punishment is decreasing. At the end of the 1990s, some opinion polls showed that over 90 percent of Americans were in favor of the death penalty. Today, that figure is only slightly more than 50 percent of the population. And the rate is constantly dropping - even after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Hand and arm strapped down with black straps, partial graphic
Bhattacharyya says there's been a drop in death sentences in the USImage: AP Graphics

Secondly, in the last four years, three US states have abolished the death penalty. And thirdly, the number of people eligible for the death penalty has dropped. The execution of juvenile convicts as well as mentally retarded persons was abolished by the US Supreme Court some years ago. In the last few years, we've also seen a drop in the number of death sentences actually carried out. So, things are getting better. We hope that this will eventually lead to a complete abolishment of the death penalty in the mid term.

The execution of Troy Davis sparked strong protests in Europe where the abolishment of capital punishment is a requirement for all members states of the European Union.

There is hardly an issue on which Europe and the United States are as far apart as the death penalty. Given Europe's recent history and its experience with the death penalty, the majority is opposed to it. The view in Europe is that the death penalty is not justice, it's revenge. In the US, some politicians vocally support capital punishment so as to be seen as being tough on crime and some even go as far as turning it into a campaign issue. That would be unthinkable in Europe.

Given the wide gulf, is the death penalty an issue at all in transatlantic ties?

I'm afraid not. I've never heard of European politicians being outspoken about the death penalty in the US - apart from isolated cases such as Troy Davis. The death penalty is simply not high on the agenda. But we think Europeans should be vocal in their opposition to the death penalty because it could help to change the mindset of people who continue to support it.

Interview: Sonia Phalnikar
Editor: Rob Mudge

graphic showing the number of executions in 2010