Capital punishment remains one of the most divisive issues in global criminal justice. As more countries move to end the death penalty, some are doubling down.
Last week, the US state of Oklahoma executed James Coddington for his 1997 murder of 73-year-old Albert Hale.
A month earlier, Coddington fronted a five-person parole board, hoping to be granted a reprieve. Coddington, the panel was told, had been exposed to drug and alcohol abuse since he was an infant, and showed remorse for his crime. The panel recommended 3-2 that Coddington’s sentence be commuted to life imprisonment without prospect of parole, but the governor — who held the decision-making power — did not agree.
The victim’s son, Mitch Hale, said afterwards that Coddington “chose this path … he knew what the consequences are, he rolled the dice and lost.”
The US is one of increasingly few countries still actively practising the death penalty — only 18 countries were known to conduct executions last year and, of them, only 11 have been persistently doing so for the last five years.
As pandemic restrictions ease, executions are resuming. Singapore has hanged ten people this year, including two in the past month. In July, Iran executed three people — including a former child bride convicted of killing the man she married at 15. Death sentences in Myanmar have spiked since the military seized power in a February 2021 coup. In March, Saudi Arabia killed 81 men in what Amnesty International called an “execution spree”.
Some parts of the world are taking advantage of the pandemic-enforced disruption of criminal justice processes to move away from the death penalty. Malaysia has agreed to abolish the mandatory death penalty for crimes such as drug trafficking, treason and murder. Zambia, which maintained a moratorium on the death penalty since 1997, has pledged to take the next step and fully abolish the punishment.
Advocates for abolition see reasons to end the death penalty beyond principle. In countries with an insecure judiciary, the death penalty has the potential to be used to punish dissidents and activists. And, even in countries with more trusted justice systems, the chance of a rare wrongful conviction leading to an innocent person’s execution troubles abolitionists.
For those more set on its use, the issue is whether it can be done with more humanity — as a rarely used punishment for especially grave crimes, or as an alternative sanction instead of a mandatory sentence.
As of December 2021, 144 countries had totally abolished the death penalty in law or practice, while 55 countries retained it.
There were at least 28,670 people worldwide known to be on death row at the end of 2021.
In the US, 63 people are scheduled to be executed between now and April 2026.
Quotes attributable to Madoka Futamura, Hosei University:
“Death penalty policies do not exist in a vacuum. They reflect how governments conceive of criminal punishment, which is closely related to their attitude to human rights, governance, order and justice.”
“Governments that are experiencing volatility, instability or unrest tend to find it more challenging to exercise control over those areas, and under such situations, are more prone to putting the death penalty in practice for arbitrary or political purposes.”
Quotes attributable to Anugerah Rizki Akbari, University of Indonesia:
“Indonesia’s new criminal code will ink a new chapter in the country’s judicial history, but it won’t stop the long-standing debate around the death penalty.”
“The proposed way forward is shaping up as a compromise that may please nobody.”
“Despite the current moratorium, total abolition of the death penalty in Indonesia appears to be a distant prospect for activists and critics. However, within the confines of mainstream Indonesian politics, there is room to present a version of capital punishment that is more in line with international law.”