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What is ‘The Death Penalty Project’?

With the Covid-19 pandemic continuing to have devastating effects around the globe, it is continuing to dominate our news sources. Unfortunately, this has meant that some equally important matters, such as human rights offences, have not been talked about. It is imperative that we uphold the basic freedoms of everyone around the world. This is why topics such as the awful treatment of the Rohingya population in Myanmar, to the brutality of the SARS police unit in Nigeria, must receive more publicity.

One of the most longstanding and severe human rights abuses, often forgotten about in our European bubble, is the death penalty. A punishment which is meant to seek justice, but only increases disparities in society as it often targets the poorest, most vulnerable religious and ethnic minorities within our community. This is why Amnesty International strongly opposes its application as it claims, ‘the death penalty violates the most fundamental human right – the right to life. It is the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment.’

The Death Penalty Project is one of the leading organisations in combatting the use of capital punishment and aiding those who are faced with its cruel sentence. In order to understand the roots of this punishment that has divided intellectuals and philosophers for centuries, we should take a brief look at its history.

The death penalty was a central part of most cultures throughout the middle ages

As far back as the Ancient Laws of China, the death penalty has been a contentious part of human society. In the 18th Century B.C. the Code of King Hammurabi of Babylon codified the death penalty for 25 different crimes. The death penalty was a central part of most cultures throughout the middle ages and became rooted in Europe by the early modern period. Britain epitomised this transformation as the number of capital crimes increased in Britain throughout the 1700s, to the extent that over 200 crimes were punishable by death. The death penalty then spread across the globe riding the wave of colonialism. British colonialists brought the first recorded execution in the ‘New World’ to the Jamestown colony, now present-day Virginia, in the early 17th Century.

In early 20th century America, the popular tide began to turn against the death penalty. This decline was the result of the ‘Progressive Period’ in the U.S. between 1907 to 1917, resulting in six states completely outlawing the death penalty and three others limiting it to the rarely committed crimes of treason and first-degree murder of a law enforcement official.  However, this early reform was short-lived. Due to a combination of the Russian Revolution and the beginning of World War I, five of these six previously anti-death penalty states reinstated their death penalty by 1920.

Most states maintained the death penalty until there was a sharp decline in public support for it in the 1950s. The USA’s Supreme Court followed this wave of public sentiment by banning the death penalty nationwide in 1972, ruling that it was arbitrary and discriminatory. However, only four years later, the Court reversed this decision. States were once again allowed to reinstate capital punishment, as long as they corrected the problems cited by the Court in the earlier decision.

In 2017 Amnesty International recorded 2,591 death sentences given across the world

Throughout the 20th century, the death penalty lost significant support around the globe. This led to all countries in Europe, except for Russia and Belarus, abolishing the death penalty by the turn of the 21st century. However, in the UA the death penalty was not uniformly abolished. A growing number of states did begin to implement moratoriums (a temporary suspension of executions) or statutory bans on the death penalty, including New York, Maryland and Illinois. The death penalty is still very prevalent, particularly in Asia and the Middle East. In 2017 Amnesty International recorded 2,591 death sentences given across the world, highlighting the need for continued efforts against its use.

For over three decades, The Death Penalty Project has provided free legal representation to those facing execution. The project began as a few lawyers at the London based firm Simons Muirhead & Burton LLP who were dedicated to working on death penalty cases in the Caribbean. However, the work they complete has now significantly grown; they have a team of human rights barristers, forensic experts and academics working in over 30 countries.

They are inspired by the belief that the death penalty is inhumane and often discriminates against the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society, trying to ensure that their rights are upheld while they are facing the death penalty. Their work has already saved the lives of thousands of prisoners, exonerating them from the death sentence. At the same time, the group has transformed the legal landscape through setting judicial precedents in the countries they operate in.

One of the primary roles of the project is to provide free legal representation and assistance to individuals on death row and other vulnerable prisoners. Unfortunately, in many countries, legal representation remains a privilege which many cannot afford. It is often those who cannot access legal representation who are the most marginalised and receive the harshest penalties.

In providing this representation, the project is able to create lasting legal precedents which not only benefit the individual on trial but also ensures that thousands of others will not be subjected to the same conviction. In 2001 the Project had one of its most momentous victories challenging the mandatory death penalty in Saint Vincent and Saint Lucia. This victory created a legal precedent which has since been used to challenge the mandatory death penalty around the world.

One of the most meaningful cases the Project supported was for Wenceslaus James. James was convicted of murder in June 1996 and given a death sentence. James and his co-defendant, Anthony Briggs, were convicted of the murder of a taxi driver, Siewdath Ramkissoon. They were sentenced to the death, the automatic punishment for murder in Trinidad and Tobago. In 1999, he was told he would be executed after Anthony Briggs. However, for reasons still unknown to him, James was not executed that day.

He spent the next 23 years as a condemned prisoner until the Death Penalty Project became aware of his story in July 2019. They assisted his Trinidadian lawyers, Daniel Khan and Shane Kingston, in filing a constitutional motion challenging his death sentence. Finally, on 8 June 2020, the High Court of Trinidad and Tobago quashed James’s death sentence, based off the legal precedent set by the JCPC (Judicial Committee of the Privy Council) in one of the project’s earlier cases. The precedent argues that after such an extended length of time, to carry out the death sentence would breach one’s constitutional rights.

[The group] is slowly, but surely, persuading more and more nations to deem it as unconsititional

The group tirelessly works on cases such as Wenceslaus James’s, not only helping the individual but also changing mindsets and opinions within the countries they work in. This is supported by the countless campaigns they run to increase awareness about the injustice the death penalty creates and its unfortunately frequent misuse. By creating an open dialogue with governments and stakeholders on the death penalty and its abolition, they are slowly, but surely, persuading more and more nations to deem it as unconstitutional.

However, there is still a long way to go, and many individuals are left in harsh conditions as they wait on death row. It is only with the help of the volunteering lawyers, funding from various institutions, support from the EU and the Foreign Commonwealth and Development office and law firms such as Allen and Overy that progress can be made. Help from university volunteers, such as those at Warwick, can create a meaningful impact in our society by reducing the workload of the Project.

The death penalty has inflicted immeasurable harm over the course many centuries, but with help from organisations such as the Death Penalty Project, could this be the one when it is eradicated?

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