24 Mar 2015

Death penalty in the USA – the key questions

Utah’s governor signs a bill that brings back firing squads as one potential form of execution. But why is this significant?

Why has Utah brought back firing squads?

Lethal injection remains the primary method for carrying out executions in the state but a new bill was signed on Monday, enabling the use of firing squads as a secondary technique, as the drugs necessary for the injection are harder to come by.

Marty Carpenter, spokesman for Utah’s Governor Gary R Herbert, said that opposition to the death penalty procedure amendments bill was mainly from those who were against capital punishment in general.

We prefer to use our primary method of lethal injection when such a sentence is issued. Utah governor’s spokesman

In a statement, he said: “We regret anyone ever commits the heinous crime of aggravated murder to merit the death penalty and we prefer to use our primary method of lethal injection when such a sentence is issued.

“However, when a jury makes the decision and a judge signs a death warrant, enforcing that lawful decision is the obligation of the executive branch.”

Which states have the death penalty?

Although 18 states have abolished capital punishment, the remaining states continue to practice the death penalty. The southern belt is said to practice more than the rest of the United States, with 37 per cent of all executions taking place in Texas alone since 1976.

Red areas show states which use the death penalty. Green areas do not

Why are drugs for lethal injection harder to obtain?

America is said to be running out of drugs because of a European embargo to end the death penalty.

In November 2010, the UK originally imposed a national control on the export to the USA of sodium thiopental – one of the drugs used for lethal injections – on the basis it is seen as a “torture” product.

Read more: Botched injection prompts calls for new execution methods

These controls were extended in 2011 to include three others potentially used in the injection, namely potassium chloride, pancuronium bromide and sodium pentobarbital.

At the same time, the UK also urged the EU Commission to implement an EU-wide control on the export of these drugs. By the end of 2011, the EU also imposed a prohibition on the export of “torture” goods, saying that it “disapproves of capital punishment in all circumstances and works towards its universal abolition”.

What forms of death penalty are there?

Although lethal injection is now the primary method of execution, prisoners are executed in the US by any one of five methods. In a few jurisdictions the prisoner is allowed to choose which one he or she prefers.

Apart from the lethal injection, these include hanging, firing squad, electrocution, as well as the gas chamber. Only Idaho and Utah authorise the firing squad.

Is the death penalty a deterrent?

The National Research Council concluded in April 2012 that studies claiming that the death penalty affects murder rates were “fundamentally flawed” because they did not consider the effects of non-capital punishments and used “incomplete or implausible models”.

More than 85 per cent of America’s leading criminologists did not believe the penalty acted as a proven deterrent to homicide, according to a study published in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology in 2009.

What about the rest of the world?

While the US is one of few advanced democracies in the world who carry out executions, China, Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia are said to practice on a much larger scale.

According to one think tank, the Death Penalty Information Center, the number of executions that have taken place since 1976 is 1,404, while in China, there are said to have been roughly around 2,400 in 2013 alone.