“I am fighting for the abolition of the death penalty, because if others did not fight for me, I would not be here today” declared Shareef Cousin, a death row exoneree and special guest at the European Union’s virtual commemoration of the 2020 World and European Day Against the Death Penalty. At the age of 17, Shareef was sentenced to death in Louisiana for a crime he did not commit. Today he is number 77 — the 77th of nearly 200 individuals who have been exonerated from death row in the United States.
“Death row made me angry,” said Mr. Cousin, “I do not want my experience to go in vain. I am fighting for the abolition of the death penalty because it is the right thing to do.”
This year, over 300 guests joined the Delegation of the European Union to the United States for a virtual screening of the film Just Mercy and an online discussion on the state of capital punishment in America.
Discrimination in Capital Punishment
In light of the ongoing national conversation in the United States regarding race, discrimination, and policing, panelists explained how these factors are visible in capital punishment, as well.
“The death penalty does not have a race problem. The modern death penalty is a manifestation of America’s systemic problem with criminal justice and race” said Robert Dunham, Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), which recently published a report that explores this issue in depth titled Enduring Injustice: the Persistence of Racial Discrimination in the U.S. Death Penalty.
Ruth Friedman, Director of the Federal Capital Habeas Project, said that “racial bias is endemic” in the federal system, with 45% of federal death row being African American men. But, she added, federal death row also has a geographic problem. Federal death row covers all 50 U.S. states, as well as U.S. territories and the District of Columbia. Yet three states alone, Texas, Missouri and Virginia, account for almost half of all cases on federal death row.
“There are too many areas within the system where flaws do occur on a daily basis” said Paul Bottei, Assistant Federal Public Defender in Columbus, Ohio, who described capital cases as being incredibly complex. This complexity, coupled with an uneven quality of defense counsel, which Bottei says “range dramatically from state to state, from city to city,” impacts how the death penalty is sought, prosecuted, and sentenced in the criminal justice system in the United States.
The Death Penalty in the United States
At the forefront of the discussion was the recent resumption of the death penalty by the United States federal government following a period of nearly two decades without a federal execution. Robert Dunham of DPIC said that the “federal government has executed more individuals in the past three months than in the past 60 years combined.” Ruth Friedman said of the seven federal executions this year, “the federal government has executed as many people as the rest of the country put together, and another man is slated to be executed next month.”
The resumption of U.S. federal executions has been noticed around the world. European Union Ambassador to the U.S. Stavros Lambrinidis said in his opening remarks, “As the EU, we were greatly concerned and disturbed when the U.S. re-instituted federal executions. We were open in criticizing that. We look forward to the day when the increasing number of U.S. states [abolishing the death penalty] are joined by more and more. Our work here is to achieve this.”
This sentiment was supported by Germany’s Ambassador to the U.S. Emily Haber, who said, “It was the United States that helped us overcome our dark past, to establish democracy and the rule of law. It saddens me to see a partial revival of the death penalty in the U.S. under federal law. I hope that one day the U.S. as a whole will join the historic process to abandon the death penalty.”
Is Change Coming?
DPIC’s Robert Dunham described the U.S. government’s resumption of executions as “out of step with the rest of the country,” adding “the death penalty has disappeared from whole regions in the U.S.”
Shareef Cousin said of his native Louisiana, “Even in the South, the trend is changing. Louisiana only had three executions in the past 20 years, but we’ve had almost ten exonerations in the past 15 years.”
The U.S. government’s recent actions should not be seen as a setback in the movement to abolish the death penalty worldwide. In the United States, executions are decreasing, and a growing number of states have abolished the death penalty. Of 193 UN Member States, 162 countries have not had executions for at least 10 years, and 112 have abolished the death penalty in law.
“My hope is that we will be able to celebrate very soon together with the American people the abolition of the death penalty in the U.S. at all levels” said Ambassador Lambrinidis. “The question today is not, ‘Why are you not using the death penalty?’ it’s ‘Why are you still using the death penalty?’”
The European Union champions the abolition of the death penalty around the world. In the United States, the EU works to raise public awareness, support national networks, monitor the use of the death penalty, and advocate for legal reform and for the stay of executions.