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Like the Death Penalty, Slavery was Once ‘Established in Law’
email this pageprint this pageemail usJacqueline Macalesher -
July 07, 2010

The recent news that U.S. Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan is reaffirming her support for the death penalty is alarming. In a statement made at her confirmation hearing, Kagan stated her belief that the “constitutionality of the death penalty is settled precedent going forward and generally should not be disrupted.”

Kagan’s announcement is a far cry from President Barack Obama's promises to protect civil liberties and uphold a just and democratic society - the death penalty violates two fundamental human rights, the right to life and the right to not be tortured or subject to any inhuman, cruel or degrading punishment.

Kagan’s argument that the death penalty is "established law" falls short. The constitutionality of a law does not guarantee its moral right. Slavery was constitutionally protected in the USA until the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution prohibited its use.

This recent announcement marks a step back for democracy in the USA and a step away from the global trend to abolish the death penalty. As of 2010, 149 countries and territories around the world have abolished the death penalty de jure or de facto, and of the 47 retentionist countries, 'only' 18 carried out executions in 2009.

Although the USA is among the biggest executioners in the world (in 2009, it had the fifth highest number of executions in the world, putting it in the company of China, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia), last year marked a turning point - the amount of States that considered abolishing the death penalty was on the increase and the amount of people executed by the state declined.


The death penalty is a costly punishment for the U.S. tax payer. It has been estimated that on average the true cost for a state to reach one execution is $30 million. In California, since the death penalty was reinstated the cost for each execution is over $250 million.

Many death penalty supporters argue that the death penalty serves as a deterrent. Yet the majority of the world's leading criminologists would beg to differ. A 2009 report by the Washington DC-based Death Penalty Information Centre showed that the nation’s police chiefs rank the death penalty last in their priorities for effective crime reduction, and rate it as one of the most inefficient uses of taxpayer dollars in fighting crime. In 2007 the State of New Jersey abolished the death penalty. Ever since, murder rates have declined.

On 10 October 2010, the world’s spotlight will be on the USA, as the 8th World Day Against the Death Penalty focuses on it. Human rights activists will look toward President Obama and the U.S. Supreme Court to lead the way in upholding civil liberties and democracy, by calling for full abolition.

Jacqueline Macalesher is Penal Reform International’s Death Penalty Project Manager.

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