William Van Poyck spent 25 years on death row before the state of Florida executed him last June in front of two dozen witnesses. His death by lethal injection transpired despite persistent claims that he had received inadequate legal representation during his trial, including his attorney’s failure to present mitigating evidence of child abuse and mental-health problems, and despite evidence that his co-defendant actually shot the victim, a prison guard.
Van Poyck’s case is one of hundreds detailed in an Amnesty International report released Wednesday highlighting worldwide trends in capital punishment in 2013, a year marked by a 14 percent increase in reported executions — 778 — compared with the previous year. The report, however, does not include numbers from China, where the death penalty is a state secret and data is unreliable. Amnesty believes China executed thousands of people last year.
“I’d be careful about the percentage increase because we don’t know how many executions are being carried out in China — for all we know, the number of executions may have dropped,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C. “That would be indicative of a global trend and the trend in the U.S., where six states have abolished the death penalty in the last six years, and where death sentences are down 70 percent from the 1970s.”
The United States remained the only country in the Americas to execute prisoners last year, with the state of Texas accounting for 41 percent of all executions, according to the report.
Despite the regional distinction, U.S. executions continue to decrease, a sign of growing distrust about the application of capital punishment. Maryland last May became the 18th state to abolish the death penalty. Last month, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced a moratorium on executions while he remains in office, citing “problems that exist in our capital punishment system.”
Among the “problems” in the U.S. is the controversial use of pentobarbital. Missouri on Wednesday used the widely available drug to execute Jeffrey Ferguson by lethal injection. He was convicted of raping and killing 17-year-old Kelli Hall 25 years ago. Ferguson became the third person executed by Missouri this year — all with pentobarbital — and the 73rd since 1976, when the U.S. reinstated capital punishment.
But pentobarbital has rarely been used in humans. The drug is commonly used to euthanize animals. Experts worry that the untested drug, and new drug cocktails used by other states, could cause inmates extreme pain and suffering.
Despite the global increase in reported executions in 2013, there are encouraging signs for anti-death-penalty activists, according to Amnesty’s report. There were 10 percent fewer executions in the U.S. compared with 2012. And although nine countries have continuously executed inmates for the past five years, there is a steady global trend away from state-sponsored executions.
"This decrease confirms that, globally, the popularity of the death penalty is falling, and that states which continue to execute will find themselves increasingly isolated as time goes on,” said Maya Foa, director of Reprieve, a human rights organization in the United Kingdom.
Only a handful of countries — among them Iraq and Iran — were responsible for the uptick in executions. Iraq witnessed a 30 percent spike in executions, with 169 people put to death, and there were 369 official executions in Iran last year, according to Amnesty. But the United Nations says Iran executed nearly twice that number of people, 687, mostly for alleged drug-related offenses, which under international standards do not meet the threshold of “most serious crimes.” In Iran, there is no right to meaningful appeal for drug crimes under the country’s anti-narcotics law, which runs against international obligations.
“Hundreds of people are executed for drugs offenses in Iran every year, but this is not an isolated problem — Pakistan, which has the largest death row population in the world, also sentences people to death on narcotics charges,” said Foa. “Yet these countries continue to receive funding for their counter-narcotics programs from the U.N. and countries including the U.K. and France.”