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The European Union, the United States and the Death Penalty

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I gave the following remarks to the Delegation of the European Union to the United States and diplomats from the EU28 member embassies on Dec. 12, 2013:

I would like to thank the EU delegation for inviting us here today and for supporting our efforts. I want to dedicate my remarks to the memory of Delbert Tibbs, a staff member of Witness to Innocence and a death row survivor, who died on Nov. 23 in Chicago at the age of 74. Delbert was wrongfully convicted for a rape and murder in 1974, and spent three years on Florida's death row. Delbert was many things -- a poet, a sage, an activist, a former seminary student, and a peacemaker who was a leader in the death penalty abolition movement.

Witness to Innocence is a 10-year organization, founded by Sister Helen Prejean of New Orleans and a group of death row survivors.

The mission of Witness to Innocence is to empower exonerated death row survivors and their families to become effective leaders in the movement to abolish the death penalty. Our members are all death row survivors who spent an average of 10 years awaiting execution, typically in solitary confinement. They speak to churches, universities, community groups and legislatures about their experiences -- in the United States and internationally -- and they work with lawmakers and state abolition groups on death penalty repeal efforts.

WTI played an integral role in the abolition of the death penalty in the U.S. states of New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Illinois, Maryland and Connecticut. We are a member of the steering committee of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty. WTI is advocating for federal compensation for the wrongfully convicted, as most exonerees leave prison penniless and without so much as an apology.

More Americans are coming to learn -- as Europeans have known for quite some time -- that the death penalty is a fundamental violation of human rights. Capital punishment deprives human beings of their dignity and perpetuates a vicious cycle of societal violence. Further, the practice harms communities, has no deterrent effect and provides no real relief to victims.

The death penalty is a punishment reserved for the poor, racial and ethnic minorities. It is rife with abuse and corruption, prosecutorial misconduct, racial bias, fraudulent witness testimony and junk science. Over the past four decades, approximately 1,355 people have been executed in the U.S., while 143 innocent people have been freed from death row. This means that for every nine people who are executed, one innocent person is released from death row. Many more innocent people certainly remain imprisoned, as the innocent certainly have been executed.

Last year, a record 111 UN member nations voted in favor of a death penalty moratorium. As a majority of the nations of the world have rejected the death penalty, the U.S. remains one of the most prolific executioners, along with China, Iran, and North Korea. But in the U.S., executions are on the decline.

Approximately three quarters of the executions occur in the South, with its legacy of slavery and racial violence. And only 2 percent of the counties in the U.S. are responsible for the majority of the nation's executions and death row population, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Further, all state executions come from a mere 15 percent of counties in America, and all death row inmates come from 20 percent of the counties. Moreover, the jurisdictions implementing the death penalty suffer from the most reversal rates, errors and egregious injustices.

So we have reason to be optimistic. As NGOs in the U.S. such as Witness to Innocence fight to end the death penalty, the EU is doing its part to turn the tide. Thanks to the EU embargo on lethal injection chemicals to the U.S., American states are running out of their supplies of poison. Desperate to kill, some have resorted to the black market or using unapproved chemicals.

Time is running out on the death penalty, and in the end human rights will prevail. It is an honor to be a part of history, and I thank the EU for its leadership and support in ending the death penalty.