16. U.S. Restraint on Capital Punishment: A Light to the Nations?

Only 17 U.S. residents were put to death by the state in 2020.  Isn't the United States, therefore, a leader in the worldwide trend away from capital punishment?

No.  The number executed has declined, but the United States still lags behind others in clinging to official executions at any level.  Among the 37 members of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development-- the club of advanced nations -- Japan is the only other executioner.  In Europe, only Belarus still kills in the name of the law.

"Perspective," the trademark of this column, refers both to historical context and to contemporary worldwide trends.  One of these trends is, indeed, a move away from capital punishment.  106 nations, including nearly all developed states, have abolished the death penalty completely.

Another 8 nations reserve executions for extraordinary cases such as war crimes or crimes against humanity.  Among these is Israel, whose last execution (and one of only two) was of Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann in 1962. 

In another 28 countries, capital punishment is still on the books, but has not been invoked for at least the last ten years.

This leaves 53 nations that still practice execution at least sporadically, spread geographically among the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and (a puzzle) the West Indies.  By far the champion executioner is China; the number killed each year is a state secret but is estimated by Amnesty International as in the thousands.  In 2019, 86 percent of the remaining executed were in four Middle Eastern countries: Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Egypt.

But the United States, with 22 killed, had the dubious distinction of earning sixth place.  If moving beyond capital punishment is an index of civilization -- as this observer believes -- then the United States is a conspicuous laggard.

On the other hand, the growing reticence to inflict death has left its mark here as well.  As recently as 1999, the United States executed 98 people. Recently Virginia became the 23rd state to abolish the death penalty.  

And the number in 2020 would have been lower had not the Trump administration resumed federal executions after a 17-year hiatus.  In fact, only 7 of the 17 U.S. executions in 2020 were carried out by states; for the first time, federal executions exceeded all 50 states put together.

At this opportune moment National Geographic has just published a telling account of some 182 prisoners, condemned to death, who were later found innocent through DNA and other modern methods.  How many of the thousands put away over the years were in fact not guilty of the crimes for which they paid the ultimate price?  We will never know.