The Executioner's Waning Defenses
Michael L. Radelet
Hugo Adam Bedau, my mentor, friend, and hero, turned 82 years old in 2008. I began research on capital punishment in 1979, when I was 28. If I am lucky enough to live as long as Hugo already has, I will have a 54–year career of death penalty work. Consequently, this essay is (more or less) my midway report and reflection on where we are on the road to abolition. My guess is that when I turn Hugo's age in 2032, the only scholars writing about “The Death Penalty in America”1 will be historians.
How can that optimism be justified? After all, in the 31–year span encompassing 1977–2007 there were 1,099 executions in the United States. By May 2008, the death penalty was authorized by the federal government and by 36 states,2 and there were some 3,400 inmates queued up to receive the executioners' services. On the other hand, if we step back from the trees and look at the forest, there can be absolutely no doubt that there has been dramatic progress toward worldwide abolition of the death penalty over the past three centuries and especially the past three decades. In July 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Gregg v. Georgia and several companion cases,3 thereby reinstituting the death penalty in the United States. At the time of Gregg, only 16 countries from around the world had abolished the death penalty. By May 2008, that figure stood at 92 countries that had total abolition and 137 countries that had abolished capital punishment in law or in practice.4 In December 2007, the United Nations General Assembly called for a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty with a view toward abolishing executions. The vote was overwhelming: 104 of the U.N.'s member states supported the resolution, while only 54 opposed it and 29 abstained.5