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The U.S. vs. the World in the Death Penalty Debate

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The U.S. is one of very, very few western nations that still engage in state-sponsored killing. The rest of the western world sees the death penalty as barbaric, which it is.

It is also illogical: Why do we kill people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong?

And it is unethical. Amnesty International calls the death penalty "the ultimate cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment." And most major religious denominations in the United States are opposed to the death penalty.

Some people believe that the death penalty serves as a deterrent to crime, but that theory doesn't hold up under careful scrutiny.

And then there's the risk of executing an innocent person. Since the first DNA exoneration took place in the U.S. in 1989, 208 people have been freed via DNA evidence after being wrongfully convicted of crimes they did not commit. Many more have been exonerated via other kinds of late-coming evidence.

Some of those innocent people were freed from death row. These folks are the "lucky" ones, because they had a chance to prove their innocence before they were put to death. How many others have not been so lucky? We cannot know. But do we really want to risk that kind of mistake?

Furthermore, the American Bar Association recently described the legal process leading to executions as "deeply flawed". Studies in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and elsewhere have shown that the death penalty is applied in a discriminatory, arbitrary, and uneven manner, and is used disproportionately against racial minorities and the poor. For example, a 1998 study of death sentences in Philadelphia found that African-American defendants were almost four times more likely to receive the death penalty than were people of other ethnic origins who committed similar crimes. That's not what I would call justice.

And these are just a few of the many good reasons to go instead with a sentence of life in prison without parole. Like the rest of the civilized world.

So, on November 15, a human rights committee of the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution calling for a global "moratorium on executions with a view toward abolishing the death penalty."

The vote was 99 in favor and 53 against, with 33 abstentions.

Want to guess who voted against the resolution? Yep, the good ol' United States of America, along with Afghanistan, China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe, and a handful of other countries known for their systematic violations of human rights.

What do they say about the company you keep?

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Mary Shaw is a Philadelphia-based writer and activist, with a focus on politics, human rights, and social justice. She is a former Philadelphia Area Coordinator for the Nobel-Prize-winning human rights group Amnesty International, and her views (more...)

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