Thoughts on the death penalty

Richard Branson deep in thought
Image by Molly Choma
A close up of Richard Branson smiling, looking at the camera
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Published on 10 October 2020
I’ve never made a secret of my opposition to capital punishment.

This World Day Against the Death Penalty is a good reminder that this barbaric and inhumane practice continues in dozens of countries around the world. Whilst much of humanity has understandably turned its attention to the response to the global COVID-19 pandemic, it is easy to lose sight of some of the more disconcerting recent developments.

In the US, the federal government carried out seven executions in around ten weeks this year - the first federal executions since 2003. In Egypt, just this week, 15 political dissidents were executed following trials that, according to human rights organisations, didn’t meet basic standards of fair and equal justice.

And in Iran, the recent execution of wrestling champion Navid Afkari for an alleged murder in connection with a political protest was widely condemned as an effort to deter and silence anti-regime protests.

As the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty reminds us, the right to effective legal representation from the moment of arrest to the end of the judicial process is one of the most fundamental principles in all legal proceedings. In death penalty cases, access to a lawyer literally makes the difference between life and death. And yet, those rights are frequently and often openly violated, making a mockery of the criminal justice process and adding more weight to the thought that governments shouldn’t put people to death in the first place.

I have always felt that the death penalty is irreconcilable with our understanding of human dignity and universal human rights, and that is why I’ve long fought for universal abolition of this irreversible form of punishment. And while the moral and ethical case against the death penalty is perhaps stronger than ever, I think additional considerations compel all of us to take a stronger stand against this relentless machinery of death.

Richard Branson making a speech
Richard Branson making a speech

No issue is more intricately tied to the racial and socioeconomic biases that permeate justice systems than the death penalty. The practice is rooted in racism, and in many countries ethnic minorities and the poor are still more likely to be prosecuted for capital murder, sentenced to death and ultimately executed. The abolition of capital punishment is a critical step in the movement toward racial and social equality.

Also, the death penalty does not make communities safer and it does not address the root causes of crime. Those who commit crimes rarely, if ever, consider the nature of the punishment when they act, and statistics show that states with the death penalty have higher murder rates than those without. In US states where the death penalty is abolished, data shows no subsequent spike in murder rates. This is consistent with international findings, which shows that countries that have abolished capital punishment experienced a decline in murder rates in the following decade.

One of the most frustrating aspects of the death penalty is the well-documented risk of executing innocent people. In the United States for every nine people executed, one innocent person has been exonerated – a total of 172 individuals since 1973. This holds true around the world: last year, 11 people were exonerated and found innocent of the crimes for which they were sentenced to die. By all accounts, the true number of innocent people who continue to languish on death row—or who have been executed —is much higher.

The death penalty is wasteful and ineffective. Governments across the globe are facing pandemic-related economic recessions, while at the same time, many continue to allocate millions of dollars per year to capital punishment. This diverts resources away from critical public health and safety initiatives, missing crucial opportunities to bring our economies back on track. In times of prosperity, as in times of crisis, the death penalty is a wasteful misallocation of public resources that could better be spent elsewhere.

There is progress, of course. Amnesty International’s 2019 report shows that 142 countries have abolished the death penalty. The tide is turning, and now it is the time for all of us – governments, civil society and businesses, to end this cruelty once and for all.