The Death Penalty Is a Human Rights Abuse

Since 10.10.10 was the World Day Against the Death Penalty, I wanted to use this space to post an excellent piece by my colleague at the Center for Constitutional Rights, Rachel Meeropol, and her father, Robert. Read on for an important contribution to the debate that reframes the issue in terms of human rights, an argument that may ultimately prove more effective than any we currently fall back on.

In 1844, a joint committee of the Michigan Senate and House issued a report calling for the abolition of the death penalty. More than questions of morality and deterrence, the subsequent debate focused on the fundamental nature of governance--does a government have the right to put people to death? Two years later, Michigan became one of the earliest governments in the world to abolish the death penalty. Just over 100 years after that the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which begins its enumeration of fundamental human rights with "the right to life, liberty and security of person." The United States, then a leader in the emerging field of human rights, voted for it.

If life is a human right, how can the United States continue to execute people? We are not the only ones asking this question. The World Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, a coalition of 108 non-governmental agencies from around the world, had set 10-10-10, as the 8th World Day Against the Death Penalty. In previous years this day of worldwide anti-capital punishment initiatives has focused attention on the death penalty in geographic regions (2005, Africa, 2008, Asia) or issues (2009, juvenile executions). This year's focus is the United States.

As the son and granddaughter of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, executed by the U.S. government after being convicted of Conspiracy to Commit Espionage at the height of the McCarthy period in 1953, we have a personal reason to abhor the death penalty. As attorneys, we view the death penalty as a fundamental human rights abuse.

There are many compelling reasons to abolish the death penalty in the United States. The domestic abolition movement has argued effectively that since our system of justice can never be mistake-free, it is inevitable that an error will be made in a capital case and an innocent person will be executed. In fact, DNA evidence has demonstrated the innocence of at least 17 death-row inmates since 1993, according to the Innocence Project. One such exoneree, who had served 11 years in prison, came within five days of execution, while another exoneree, who had spent 17 years in prison, came within nine days of execution before receiving a stay. Frank Lee Smith had spent 14 years on death row and died there of cancer, before DNA testing exonerated him 11 months after his death.

The question of cost is also compelling. At a time when states face massive budget shortfalls, a study examining the cost of the death penalty in Kansas found that death penalty cases are 70 percent more expensive than comparable non-death penalty cases. A report by the Urban Institute found that taxpayers paid at least $37.2 million for each of five executions carried out in Maryland.

Other arguments against the death penalty that have gained support include its uneven application by race and class. Blacks and Latinos make up more than 55 percent of the current death row population, despite comprising only about 25 percent of the U.S. population. The vast majority of people on death row are poor.

Abolition advocates have also shown that the death penalty is not an effective deterrent, and that life imprisonment will protect the public from repeat offenders.

So capital punishment as it is applied in the United States is expensive, racist, arbitrary, and fallible. And it doesn't even work to deter crime. Each of these reasons, in itself, supports immediate abolition of the death penalty in the United States. But there is a more fundamental reason as well. In the aftermath of World War II, the United States took a leadership role in drafting an "international bill of rights" that recognized all people have certain inherent rights. This core human rights document, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, put it simply: life is a human right. This makes the death penalty our most fundamental human rights abuse. As long as governments have the right to extinguish our lives, they maintain the power to deny us access to every other right listed in the Declaration. In other words, this first, most central right provides the foundation upon which all other rights rest.

A human rights perspective on capital punishment has an additional advantage of being permanent. Human rights abuses are, by definition, never acceptable. If capital punishment could somehow be fixed - the cost cut, the racial and class biases removed, all possibilities for error eliminated - the government still can't do it because it violates human rights. Perhaps this is why Western Europe, where the death penalty is generally understood to be a human rights abuse, did not witness a renewed call for the death penalty after the Madrid train bombing that killed 190 people, or the London subway bombing that killed 52. Closer to home, in Michigan, where the legislature questioned over 150 years ago whether a government has the right to kill, periodic calls to reinstate the death penalty gain no traction.

The death penalty diminishes the humanity of everyone it touches. As Sojourner Truth told the Michigan legislature during one debate on whether to reinstate capital punishment, "We are the makers of murderers if we do it." On this 8th World Day Against the Death Penalty let us reaffirm our commitment to human rights and reassert our common humanity by demanding that our government stop killing our fellow human beings.

Robert Meeropol is the director of the Rosenberg Fund for Children,, and Rachel Meeropol is an attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights,