08/13/2014 11:33 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

On UK Anniversary, Death Penalty in U.S. Remains Abnormal


Fifty years ago today, at 9 a.m., Gwynne Owen Evans and Peter Allen were hanged in England for killing John Allen West during a bungled burglary earlier that year. They were the last-ever executions in the United Kingdom. Just one year later the British parliament formally ended the death penalty for murder.

In the half-century since those executions, the practice of capital punishment has become among the most significant policy differences between the United States and Europe. Most people now alive in the United States and the United Kingdom -- including me, and including the British prime minister, David Cameron -- had not yet been born the last time the UK executed a prisoner. When your country has not executed anyone during your lifetime, then it's normal to respond with incomprehension and revulsion when another state kills its prisoners.

However, for many Americans the death penalty is normal. They give it little thought until a heinous murder is in the headlines, and then the cry goes up for death -- the more painful the better. Even as U.S. states are abandoning the use of capital punishment, with six states abolishing it in the last seven years and three more suspending it indefinitely, the debate continues as though killing prisoners were a normal option for a justice system.

Globally, the death penalty is far from normal.

Capital punishment separates America not only from Britain but from every other Western country. All 42 members of the Council of Europe -- including Russia, Turkey and other countries outside the European Union -- have abolished the death penalty. Every other country in the Americas has abandoned capital punishment. Only about one in 10 of the world's nations executed someone last year. Out of those 22 nations, just eight reached double figures.

Deliberately killing prisoners places the United States alongside the world's most violent and repressive regimes. The top five nations for executions are China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq and the United States. When your behavior puts you in that kind of company, you shouldn't be surprised if your real friends want you to change your behavior.

Other trans-Atlantic political and cultural disagreements -- such as those over gun control, incarceration rates, and healthcare access -- reveal quantitative differences between Europe and the United States. But the death penalty marks a qualitative difference; there is no middle ground of killing prisoners just a little bit, no shades of gray.

The clarity of the issue has helped make universal abolition of the death penalty one of the top foreign policy goals for the European Union. It's why Europe refuses to allow its medicines to be used to kill people. Europe is so steadfast in its opposition that when Missouri announced that it would use propofol (the anesthetic that accidentally killed Michael Jackson) to kill a convict, the drug's manufacturer threatened to permanently stop all supplies of the drug to the United States, even though U.S. hospitals use around 50 million doses a year for legitimate medical purposes. Under pressure from the medical profession, Missouri backed down.

The European ban on lethal injection drugs means that states have run out of their traditional execution drugs. Some states, such as California, have suspended all executions in the absence of a lethal injection protocol that can be shown not to be unconstitutionally cruel. Other states have decided to experiment with new and unproven drug combinations from secret, unregulated suppliers. Because medical professionals are forbidden from helping kill prisoners, these experimental killing cocktails are administered by prison staff without medical training.

There have been at least four botched executions this year, each worse than the last. When Michael Wilson was executed by Oklahoma in January 2014, he cried out, "I feel my whole body burning!" Later that month Ohio took 26 minutes to kill Dennis McGuire as he gasped and struggled to breathe. In April the world responded in horror as Clayton Lockett struggled on the gurney for three quarters of an hour after execution drugs were injected into him.

Most recently, Arizona took one hour and 57 minutes to kill Joseph Wood. That was long enough for him to gasp and snort more than 600 times, long enough for his attorney to submit appeals to three different courts, and long enough for his executioners to administer the supposedly lethal injection another 14 times.

Horrifically bungled executions already are becoming less newsworthy. Media inquiries to Death Penalty Focus and other anti-death-penalty groups -- and Web visits to -- were almost 50 percent lower after Wood's two-hour execution than after Lockett's one-hour execution.

Botched executions are in danger of becoming the new normal in America. But unlike the other top execution nations, where people have no control over their government actions, the citizens of the United States have a choice. As soon as we, the American people, say that it is not acceptable for our government to kill our fellow citizens in our name, then the death penalty will die. On that day the United States will close the gulf of incomprehension that separates it from its closest friends and will rejoin the rest of the West on this issue.

Born in England, Matthew Cherry is the executive director of Death Penalty Focus, a San Francisco-based global organization dedicated to the abolition of capital punishment.