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Capital punishment in the United States: where are we now?

Virginia's recent decision to abolish the death penalty brings the issue back to the center of the American debate. The USA has always made use of the death sentence since before its birth, even if in recent years this practice is less and less frequent

The United States has a long tradition of applying the death penalty, unlike European countries. Similarly, the execution was sometimes the subject of spectacularization as in the case of Timothy Mcveigh, the terrorist responsible for the Oklahoma City attack in 1995. In the general context, twenty-two states have definitively abolished the death sentence, the latest of which Virginia last October, following a trend that seems more and more to assert itself.

A brief history of the death penalty in the United States

The death sentence in the United States has been applied since before the American Revolution. This practice was (so to speak) "imported" from the United Kingdom by the first European colonizers and was widespread until the civil war of the mid-nineteenth century, especially for crimes committed by slaves.

Although some abolitionist movements were already active in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the use of the death penalty increased dramatically in the aftermath of World War I, in part due to social problems due to the Great Depression that significantly increased the crime rate, and partly for the patenting of new methods of execution.

The situation changed radically with the 1972 Supreme Court ruling Furman v. Georgia, through which the American Supreme Judge suspended all pending executions in the USA, converting them to life imprisonment. This decision was based on the fact that the death penalty constituted a form of cruel and inhuman treatment in stark contrast to the Constitution. However, this decision was short-lived.

Only four years later, indeed, always a sentence of the Supreme Court, in the case of Gregg v. Georgia, re-established the full-fledged death penalty; many consider this decision to be the result of the soaring crime in the 1970s. More than 1500 sentences have been carried out since then.

Application and execution

Historically, the death penalty was and still is applied for the crime of murder. In 1976 the Supreme Court left ample room for providing the death penalty for other types of crimes, except for rape if it did not lead to the death of the victim. Since the United States is a federal state, the types of crimes that carry the death penalty vary from state to state.

The execution is also different: the most popular methods are lethal injection, the gas chamber and the electric chair. Normally states provide for only one type of execution, but there are some that use more than one.

The recent Virginia decision

On February 22, the Congress of the state of Virginia voted to permanently abolish the death penalty and Governor Raph Northam announced his intention to sign the bill. This provision is of particular importance since Virginia is the US state, after Texas, with the second number of executions for capital punishment (112 in total from 1977 to date). This historic decision can be framed in the context of a transformation process in Virginia, which in recent times has seen the abandonment of the more conservative ideologies for which it was known, embracing more progressive decisions.

Towards a growing trend towards abolition?

The Virginia episode, however, should not be taken as an isolated case in the American landscape. In the last fifteen years, indeed, after a period of total lack of interest on the part of the overseas legislature, ten states have abolished the death sentence.

To these, moreover, must be added other states (such as California) where either a moratorium has suspended the execution, or, (like the state of Indiana), even if the death penalty has not been applied for several years. In essence, therefore, the states that habitually apply it are only seventeen (and Virginia was one of them). There is therefore a greater sensitivity on the issue of the death penalty both on a legislative and judicial level, since some moratoriums have been issued by the courts.

The only trend in the opposite direction is the decision by former President Donald Trump to suspend the moratorium introduced in 2003 for the application of the death penalty for federal crimes. President Biden, for his part, has announced that he wants to restore the moratorium.

Furthermore, for the first time, public opinion would seem to be oriented more in favor of abolition. Indeed, a poll conducted by Gallup in November 2019 showed that most Americans are more in favor of life imprisonment rather than the death penalty. Consequently, the question arises whether, following the pressure of public opinion and the recent decisions of the legislator, after the significant decline in the number of death row inmates compared to the past decades, the United States will face a total abolition of the death penalty.

Translated by Veronica Giustiniani


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  • L'Autore

    Federico Quagliarini

    Federico Quagliarini è attualmente laureando in Giurisprudenza presso la Statale di Milano. Durante il suo percorso universitario ha sviluppato un forte interesse per il diritto internazionale in particolar modo per le questioni legate agli aspetti economici. In Mondo Internazionale ricopre il ruolo di caporedattore presso l'area Legge e Società.

    Federico Quagliarini is a grad student in law at University of Milan. Throughtout his studies he has developed a deep interest in international law, in particular for economic aspects. At Mondo Internazionale he is chief editor in the area Legge e Società.

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