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04/13/2011

Death Penalty Worldwide database and website

Today marks our launch of the Death Penalty Worldwide database and website. We have been working on this project for more than two years, and it has been more work than we ever could have anticipated. Although we are just beginning to analyze the data, a few interesting facts have already emerged.

First and foremost, support for the death penalty around the world is waning, even in those nations that maintain a strong political commitment to state-sponsored executions. In fact, just as we had completed our research for Gabon a few months ago, we received word that the country had abolished the death penalty. There are serious and lively debates about abolition in virtually every retentionist nation. Even in states where abolition is unlikely in the near future, courts and legislators are steadily narrowing the scope of the death penalty’s application. This confirms what other NGOs and the UN Secretary General have previously reported: in all but a tiny handful of nations, support for the death penalty is tepid, at best.

Many nations have adopted unofficial moratoria, periodically commuting death sentences en masse. This is a welcome development, but it sometimes obscures the fact that many of these same nations prosecute indigent individuals under conditions that provide few guarantees of due process. In the vast majority of retentionist states, indigent defendants fail to receive quality legal representation, and many receive no lawyers at all. Lawyers are inexperienced and underfunded. In some countries, it is commonplace for lawyers to meet their clients for the first time on the day of trial. And in too many cases, convictions rest on “confessions” extracted by beatings or torture. There can be no doubt that many hundreds of innocent persons currently languish on death rows around the world in appalling conditions, deprived of any opportunity to meaningfully challenge their convictions and death sentences. We should not turn a blind eye to such injustice simply because a government has refused to carry out executions.

Some of you may wonder why we felt it was necessary to create the database. Although there are many excellent online sources of information relating to death penalty practices around the world – most notably, reports generated by Amnesty International and the database maintained by Hands Off Cain – none of these are devoted to academic and legal analysis of developments in this field. This resource is not intended to supplant those resources, but to supplement them. In the future, we hope to gather sample briefs on issues of international law and make them available to defense counsel seeking to challenge the application of the death penalty. We are keenly aware of the resource constraints facing defense counsel around the world, particularly in the global south, and hope that this website will provide much-needed information regarding legal arguments they can employ in their advocacy.

We hope that this information will inspire and facilitate further research into the application of the death penalty worldwide. We need more country and regional studies regarding the application of the death penalty, particularly in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. We need reliable data on the composition of death rows around the world, numbers of individuals sentenced to death, and death row conditions. We also hope that the database will help inform and enlighten the expanding network of individuals, advocates and organizations engaged in the debate over the application of the death penalty worldwide.

-- Sandra Babcock