Photo by Scott Langley

COVID-19 and the death penalty in the United States

By Rick Halperin, Amnesty International USA State Death Penalty Abolition Coordinator for Texas

In these difficult days when individual and national health is a main concern for everyone, the COVID-19 pandemic is having an unexpected impact on the death penalty, in that it is a cause for the stay of some impending executions. The last execution to take place in the United States was Nathaniel Woods, despite a confession of another man claiming to be the lone gunman in the crime, on March 5, 2020 by the state of Alabama, just days before President Trump declared a national emergency concerning the COVID-19 outbreak. Since then, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has either handed down 60-day stays or rescheduled seven executions. As good as that news is, I would like to point out that we have had a parallel to this in the past. In the Kentucky case of Baze v Rees, the US Supreme Court halted ALL US executions that were scheduled via lethal injection until the constitutionality of that method of execution was determined. When the Court upheld it in 2008, all those executions which had been stayed were quickly re-scheduled, and carried out, so that an increase in executions occurred from 37 in 2008 to 52 in 2009. Please remember that all these current executions which are being stayed are almost certainly going to be re-scheduled quickly after the medical threats pass.

Amnesty International USA recently sent a letter to all governors urging them to, provide adequate healthcare, release as many people as possible from jails and prisons, stop all executions and reconsider their use of the death penalty with an eye towards abolition and finally relinquish lethal injection drugs that are viable for hospital to use to treat COVID-19 patients.

To the 28 Governors who oversee states that still retain the death penalty, we renew our call to cease all executions and abolish this cruel punishment once and for all. Amnesty International opposes the death penalty unconditionally and we believe that a person’s right to life is not negated by their incarceration, regardless of their conviction. We consider it to be a punishment incompatible with fundamental human rights principles. Carrying out executions especially during this global pandemic over saving lives, would be unconscionable. We urge states to not only halt all executions during this global pandemic but use this time to re-examine their use of the death penalty altogether — its ineffectiveness as a deterrent, its racially discriminatory application, its finality and the human rights violations associated with its use — with a view towards abolition. In March, Colorado became the 22nd state to abolish the death penalty and there are 11 additional states that maintain this punishment in law but have not executed anyone in 10 years. The national picture reflects the global one, as more than half of the countries in the world have abolished the death penalty and 142 in total are now abolitionist in law and practice.

According to Amnesty’s Global Report: Death Sentences and Executions in 2019, for the 11th consecutive year, the USA remained the only country to carry out executions in the Americas world region. More than 40% of all recorded executions were carried out in Texas, which remained the leading executing state in the country.

If you’re looking for more ways to advance our work to abolish the death penalty, but your group needs funds to take advantage of event or programming opportunities, have your Amnesty group apply for the AIUSA Death Penalty Abolition fund by emailing CJ@Aiusa.org for an application.

While activists may be experiencing the temporary lull in state killings, we should sadly expect to be much busier in our abolition work in the months ahead.