2014: A botched year for the death penalty


What’s the biggest reason you have for not supporting the death penalty? The straight morality of using killing to show killing is wrong? The issues around innocence and the finality of the death penalty? Cost? Its misuse? The torture of the process itself?

2014 was, perhaps more than any I can remember recently, a year of gruesome examples of the flaws in the death penalty system.

Bloody justice in the USA

As European (and US) drugs usually used for lethal injection run out, US states have gone to nastier extremes to meet their addiction to capital punishment this year.

New, untested drug mixes have led to a year of botched executions that exposed the ‘humane’ method of execution by lethal injection as anything but. In Arizona, Joseph Wood was left gasping for air for nearly two hours before he died.

Oklahoma paralysed then lethally injected Michael Wilson at the start of the year, who yelled that he could ‘feel his whole body burning’,and new testimony from Clayton Lockett’s gruesome execution in the same state (described as a ‘bloody mess’) underlines the simple fact there’s no easy or humane way to kill.

Guilty means possibly guilty

In the US alone — where reporting makes it easy to follow these things — seven death row inmates were found innocent of the crimes they were due to be executed for — the highest number in five years. They include Kwame Ajamu, Henry McCollum and Glenn Ford. The rhetoric around each of these is sadly nothing new — ‘the system failed’; ‘[police] jumped… to the easiest target’; ‘their convictions were based solely on the testimony of…’

This year also saw the University of Michigan release a study showing that 4% of death row inmates are innocent — a number that means innocent people have almost certainly been executed in the US. And sadly a number of states — Alabama, California, Florida and Missouri — are trying to speed up the execution process; a move which could mean more innocent people dying.

One sad example has just been confirmed by the US courts — a rare move in itself — a 14-year-old boy executed in a patently unfair trial. He would have been 84 now.

46 years waiting for freedom

Hakamada Iwao with his sister and the Director of Amnesty Japan

The US isn’t the only ‘developed’ country using the death penalty — fellow G8 member Japan still executes despite the death penalty’s shortfalls.

Japan’s death row inmates are kept in the dark about their execution date until the morning they’re to be executed. Every single day might be their last. Death row prisoners are kept in isolation and rarely speak to anyone — a system that takes its toll: many prisoners suffer from severe mental health issues.

Now imagine having to ride that mental rollercoaster every day for 46 years. Whilst protesting your innocence. That was Hakamada Iwao’s life until March, when a court overturned his 1968 conviction at long last, giving him his freedom back at 78. We’d been campaigning for his release for years.

Death for resisting domestic and sexual violence

What classes as mitigating circumstances? Self-defence and other, horrifying circumstances should surely spare you from the death penalty, regardless of your thoughts on capital punishment . Not always. This was a year when the lack of compassion from some prosecutors and countries was made very public.

In China, domestic violence survivor Li Yan had been sentenced to death after she defended herself from her violent husband after months of abuse, killing him in the process. Thousands of you took action in 2013 and in July China’s Supreme Court took the rare step of overturning Li Yan’s death sentence — a step that would have been very unlikely without the international pressure.

Sadly, we were not so lucky in helping Reyhaneh Jabbari in Iran, who killed a man she said was trying to sexually abuse her. Convicted after a deeply flawed trial, her execution went ahead despite international condemnation and thousands of Amnesty supporters taking action.

Losing your religion

Meriam Ibrahim after her release

And sadly murder isn’t the only crime where execution has become a state’s answer.

In Sudan, Meriam Ibrahim was sentenced to death for refusing to renounce her faith, and to 100 lashes for ‘adultery’ because she’d married a non-Muslim man — both because the courts refused to accept she was Christian. After one of the biggest campaign actions Amnesty has ever seen, with over 250,000 of you in the UK taking action and 1 million worldwide, the Sudanese authorities dropped the charges and freed Meriam.

In Pakistan, however, Mohammad Ashgar continues to face execution for blasphemy — another ‘crime’ that shouldn’t even be on the books to start with. We’re still campaigning on behalf of Mohammad — take action here.


Even in the moments of good news — for Meriam, Li Yan and Hakamada Iwao, or for the seven exonerated in the US — the past 12 months have only highlighted the brutality of the death penalty. Not fair, consistent, humane, or foolproof in any way.

Unfortunately 2015 won’t see the end of state-sponsored executions but, as we did in 2014, we’ll continue to fight its use individual by individual, state by state, country by country. And we will, at some point, win.

This is one of Amnesty UK’s round-ups of 2014. You should also have a look at ‘A year of failing to get the joke’ and ‘six must-see documentaries’, both from Rachel Crome.

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