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The U.S. death penalty: A European perspective

Jonathan Simon, professor of law | January 24, 2011

Watching America’s death penalty moves from a half year into my stay in Europe has been interesting. As Erik Eckholm and Katie Zezima report in Saturday’s NY Times, the ability of US states to get the drugs for their lethal injection cocktails has been hampered by the complete resistance of any and almost every European country. European Community treaties not only forbid any member states from using a death penalty, they commit them to working to eliminate the death penalty internationally. In the latest instance, the American company that produces sodium thiopental does so in Italy, which will not allow it to export drugs for execution purposes. Even the country governed by Silvio Berlusconi, arguably George Bush’s best friend in Europe next to Tony Blair (but unlike Tony, still in power for a few more minutes at least) won’t give us our death drugs.

It is not that any one obstacle like this will halt the death penalty in the U.S., but drip by drip they are a reminder that strong opposition to America’s use of capital punishment is a uniform and accepted value by virtually all players in the European political spectrum. You will not find conservative European leaders (outside perhaps the racist fringe parties and perhaps not all of them) who will back the U.S. on capital punishment. Even leaders, who unlike Silvio Berlusconi, have political capital to spare, like David Cameron in the UK and Angela Merkel in Germany, are not going to waste it supporting America’s execution habit. While many of their constituents continue to say they would like to have death penalty available, they do not hold their leaders even a tiny bit accountable for not giving them one.

Many Americans assume that Europeans couldn’t possibly understand our death penalty needs. They may assume that European societies are low violence, relatively homogenous racially, and generally pacifists when it comes to punishing criminals. This picture is as badly out of date as the parallel assumption that the U.S. has a more successful economy for average people. In fact violence remains low by U.S. standards (remember most of Europe does not tolerate private gun ownership beyond hunting weapons and then with strict licensing), but fear of violent crime is a powerful feature of politics in all of the major European countries, much of it fueled by the loss of homogeneity and anxiety about immigration.

Nor are Europeans any longer to be counted as “soft on crime.” They do not use imprisonment nearly as indiscriminately (another reason their economies may be doing better) but they are increasingly punishing violent crime with long sentences and demanding better police efforts to solve and prevent violence. What they appreciate, even the ones that wouldn’t mind having a death penalty, is that capital punishment would contribute next to nothing to protecting them from violent crime and would cost a lot of capital (Euros or Pounds) that nobody wants to pay more taxes for.

That idea is also just beginning to spread across the United States.

Cross-posted from Jonathan Simon’s blog Governing Through Crime.

Comments to “The U.S. death penalty: A European perspective

  1. @Ty: why does closure for the victims’ families have to mean execution? We often hear the word “closure” used in the death penalty context in regards to the lengthy appeals process (which is why you have states like Utah trying to limit the number of appeals those on death row can file); “appeals take years, decades,” the argument goes, “and I (victim’s family) have to keep coming to court, seeing this monster’s face, [etc.]; I just want closure.” But what I think “closure” really means is finality. And since the death penalty in this country is the sentence often sought in homicides, society associates execution with finality. But if the death penalty were off the books and replaced with Life Without Parole, I truly believe that that “closure” could still be realized.

  2. This is part of the issue I have with the “Pro-Life” crowd, no gives a crap about death row “Life.” I agree that the death penalty is medieval but it still plays a vital part in our justice system. Now the truth is, I have never heard someone say “if it was not for the death penalty I would really hurt you.” Nope, never heard that, it never happens. The death penalty is only an after though for criminals which means that they have already destroyed a life or lives. Having said that, it should remain as it is if for no other reason than to give closure to the families of the victims. Where is the love?


  3. Jack, I’m not opposed to life in prison without parole for the worst crimes. Some individuals shouldn’t be at large in society, it’s true, but your viewpoint is based on punishment, not deterrance. I think the time of “an eye for and eye” is past. Yes, there should be punishment, but I think 40 years of one’s life is a pretty big piece of punishment! You can’t measure the value of a life by years served, and recognizing this doesn’t necessarily lead to extreme lenience. It seems to all boil down to whether you believe in the power of change or redemption. If you just kill someone, that person is deprived of the chance to learn and change. This is not being “soft on crime,” but it is taking a practical view of the way the world should work. Those who work to abolish the death penalty in America, are not working on behalf murderers, as you say. They are instead working on behalf of rationality and compassion in a world sadly lacking both! I think that abolishment of the death penalty will prevail.

  4. If you would like to get an idea of what European justice is like or what American justice would look like if Mr. Simon had his way, take a look at Spain. Now Spain first dispelled of its death penalty after Franco’s fall from power. But no, it did not end there. Spain proceeded to abolish the sentence of “life imprisonment”. What this means in practical terms is that the individuals responsible for the 2004 Madrid terrorist bombings which killed 191 people and wounded 1800 can only serve a maximum of 40, yes FORTY, years in prison! That’s less than a year for every life murdered!! Call this a slippery slope argument but it’s certainly not a hypothetical because this has already transpired in the enlightened European countries where a man who killed nearly 200 of his fellow human beings will some day walk free. If you’re comfortable with the idea of those who exhibit barbarity towards innocents being subjected to increasingly less punitive measures then by all means follow Mr. Simon. But don’t for a second be duped into thinking that this crusade ON BEHALF of those who murder fellow men and women will end with the abolishment of capital punishment.

  5. Dear Professor Simon,

    Thanks for your comments on the American death penalty, but why not come right out and say that most Europeans regard our death penalty as medieval, if not downright barbaric! You couldn’t emphasize enough the idea that the death penalty is not a deterrant to crime. Most murders, I would think, are committed in the heat of the moment, while those who commit pre-meditated murder believe they are too clever to be caught. The truly aberrant among us won’t be deterred by the threat of a death penalty, either. Of course the growing number of death penalty exonerations through dna testing is only one more proof of the faultiness of our American justice system. Europeans and all civilized people are correct is rejecting the death penalty!

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