Comparative Perspectives on the Death Penalty

May 2011

In the past 40 years, a sharp divergence in discourse and practice regarding the death penalty in the United States and Europe has occurred. In one of the most striking transformations in criminal justice policy in modern times, Europe has essentially abandoned the death penalty, abolishing it formally as a matter of national and international law and casting its unacceptablility in terms of a violation of basic human rights. In contrast, the United States has experienced a strong upsurge in the use of the death penalty, after a brief period of constitutional abolition in the early 1970s. Since capital punishment was constitutionally reauthorized in 1976, there have been approximately 1,200 executions in the United States, and more than 3,000 people are currently on death row awaiting execution. The United States consistently rejects— both as a formal legal matter and as a matter of popular conception—the assertion that the death penalty violates basic human rights. What accounts for this striking divergence in practice and discourse? Many scholars think they know, but their accounts vary widely and are often irreconcilable. This seminar will explore this variation and contradiction, focusing on issues such as the relative roles of politics; legal and institutional arrangements; racial and ethnic divisions and their intersections with criminal justice policy; deep-seated cultural differences; and the emergence of a human-rights frame for the death penalty. We will explore whether the death penalty is best understood as part of a larger story of divergent criminal justice policies, or whether the deeply felt moral and religious implications of the death penalty suggest that its trajectory is best considered as a distinctive phenomenon. By bringing together a multidisciplinary group of scholars for two days of focused conversation, we hope to generate a better understanding of the dramatic transformations of the recent past and the prospects for the future of the death penalty.