Deadly

03.26.14

Florida Drags Down U.S. on Amnesty International’s Global Death Penalty Report

U.S. executions fell last year, but a new law in the Sunshine State to speed up death row has the human rights group seriously concerned.

Florida has joined North Korea and Iran as a major concern for Amnesty International's death penalty campaigners.

At the launch of its annual report on global execution rates, Amnesty said the state’s law putting an express lane on death row was deeply troubling. “One of the biggest concerns we had this year was the adoption of legislation in Florida that aims at streamlining executions,” Amnesty death penalty campaigner Chiara Sangiorgio told The Daily Beast.

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Handout/Reuters

The Timely Justice Act signed into law by Republican governor Rick Scott is designed to get inmates into the execution chamber as quickly as possible once their appeals have been exhausted. Florida surpassed Texas in the number of death sentences handed down in 2013. The Sunshine State also holds the all-time record for convicted death row prisoners turning out to have been innocent (PDF). That may be because it is the only state in the union which allows a simple 7-5 verdict by a jury to consign someone to death.

“Florida’s Timely Justice Act is 100 percent bad news, because it limits the possibility for challenging the death sentence,” said Sangiorgio. “We still have unsafe convictions. Quite worryingly we are seeing other states trying to follow suit and speed up executions.”

Overall the number of executions in the U.S. fell last year, but America retained its position among the globe’s top five executioners alongside Iraq, China, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. Only 22 of the world’s 206 countries carried out any executions in last year, according to Amnesty. The U.S. was the only one in the Americas.

Sangiorgio said it is time for President Obama to lend his voice to the national debate, even though it is predominantly a state issue, just as he did on gay marriage.

“We would definitely encourage Obama to come out and call for an abolition of the death penalty in the United States. We do think that would definitely help,” she said.

While states have the right to set their own judicial penalties, there has been no capital punishment slowdown at a federal level. “Federal authorities have been proactively seeking the death penalty at federal level including in states that are abolitionist like New York,” said Sangiorgio.

Only 22 of the world’s 206 countries carried out any executions in last year, according to Amnesty.

The number of countries carrying out executions has fallen by almost half since the 1990s, but last year saw a rare spike in judicial killings led by huge increases in the number of people put to death in Iraq and Iran. While 169 people were executed in Iraq, at least 369 were killed in Iran where public hangings from cranes are commonplace.

“Only a small number of countries carried out the vast majority of these senseless state-sponsored killings,” said Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s Secretary General. “The virtual killing sprees we saw in countries like Iran and Iraq were shameful.”

In some parts of the world it's virtually impossible to calculate the number of executions. North Korean secrecy makes accurate analysis futile, while the number of people executed in China is a state secret. The scale of the killing is unknown but Amnesty estimates that thousands of Chinese people were put to death in 2013, dwarfing the numbers in the rest of the world.