United States—Death Penalty—Universal Periodic Review—October 2019

The Advocates for Human Rights, together with The World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, submitted a joint stakeholder report on the Death Penalty in the United States for the 36th Session of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review in May 2020.

The U.S. federal government, the U.S. military, and twenty-nine states retain the death penalty. The federal government can apply the death penalty to crimes that do not result in the death of the victim. Despite a 2008 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that established that the death penalty should not be expanded to cases where the victim was not killed, states continue to impose the death penalty where the defendant was substantially involved in events leading up to the death of a victim.

Minority groups are disproportionately affected by the death penalty; 77% of individuals on federal death row belong to an ethnic or racial minority group. The federal government frequently ignores local and regional opposition to the death penalty, especially in Puerto Rico. Federal law exempts individuals with intellectual disabilities from capital punishment, although states have discretion in deciding what qualifies as a disability that merits exemption. As a result, approximately 20% of individuals on death row have serious psycho-social or intellectual disabilities, which can leave them vulnerable to making a false confession.

Recommendations to the United States government include:

  • Impose a formal moratorium on the death penalty and executions with a view of eventual abolition.
  • Prohibit states from using the felony murder rule or the law of parties to sentence people to death who neither killed nor intended to kill.
  • Appoint an independent commission of experts to study and identify the root causes of racial and ethnic disparities pertaining to the death penalty and to make recommendations for eliminating bias and discrimination in the federal and state criminal justice systems.
  • Ensure that no person with an intellectual disability or severe psycho-social disability is sentenced to death or executed.