By Richard Branson
16 May 2016 and originally published on Richard’s blog
I was truly touched and humbled to receive the Abolition Award from Death Penalty Focus in California last week. I travelled to California to pick up the award and share my views because I have always believed that the death penalty is cruel, barbaric and inhumane. I wanted to share my remarks from the evening more widely on my blog, as the death penalty is an issue that affects everyone.
It is a violation of human rights that has no place in a civilized society. And I feel we all have a duty to work for its abolition across the world Over the years, I have used my voice, my reach, and my resources to take a stand against the death penalty, in the US and elsewhere. Some countries – like Saudi-Arabia, Iran, China and Pakistan – continue to execute people at an alarming rate, and convictions often follow legal proceedings that violate every standard of fairness and human decency.
Image by Hugh Williams
But there is a glimmer of hope: for the first time ever, the majority of the world’s countries – 102, to be precise – are abolitionist for all crimes. The Republic of Congo, Fiji, Madagascar and Suriname are the latest countries to join the growing list of those that abolished the death penalty for good. This is the moment to turn our attention to the US. By all accounts, the death penalty is on the decline. The number of executions is down, as more states repeal their death penalty statutes. A large portion of death sentences is imposed in just 15 counties across the country. Even red states are no longer bastions of support for the ultimate punishment. A Republican-driven repeal effort in Utah was narrowly defeated just weeks ago, and Nebraska’s legislators voted to abolish the death penalty last year, even though their effort will be challenged this November.
Overall, these developments give me hope that ending the death penalty in the US is no longer a pipe dream, but a growing movement that crosses partisan lines – a movement of those who understand it’s not just the right thing to do, but also the sensible thing to do, no matter how you look at it. Less than 10 years from now, I’m certain, the death penalty in the US will be history. What will get us there? In November, the eyes of the world will be on California as its people decide the fate of the death penalty. It may be the biggest opportunity yet to show that the tide is turning. When California outlaws the deliberate killing of prisoners, and closes down the largest death row in the country, the rest of the civilized world will celebrate with it. You may wonder why a British entrepreneur cares so much about the death penalty in the US. Well, part of the answer is my belief in forgiveness, redemption, and second chances in life. Just a few days ago, I listened to the wonderful Sister Helen Prejean. She made a heartfelt and compassionate case why we should care. “We are worth more than the worst moment of our lives,” she said. That stuck in mind: I couldn’t agree more.
Not too long ago, I had the tremendous privilege of spending some time with Anthony Ray Hinton, who languished for 30 years on Alabama’s death row before being exonerated and released last year. Ray’s story is hard to swallow and shocking, simply because it stands for everything that is wrong with the death penalty today – corrupt and racist investigators, zealous prosecutors, incompetent counsel, and wilful ignorance despite reasonable doubt. And he is only one of the 156 people who have been freed from America’s death rows in recent years. Who knows just how many of those who remain locked up are innocent, too? Not to mention those who were executed despite credible claims of innocence. Ray, who has yet to receive a penny of compensation from the state of Alabama, is amazingly free of hate or bitterness for those who so recklessly sent him to death row. But that doesn’t make his case any more acceptable. He is a living reminder that the system is broken beyond repair.
Image by Hugh Williams
There’s no question that ending the death penalty in California will be a signal no one can ignore. It means that the people of America’s most populous state have had enough: enough of a flawed system that disproportionately targets minorities. A system that cannot prevent the killing of innocents. A system that doesn’t have any impact on crime rates. A system that is a colossal waste of taxpayer money. And most of all, a system that delivers neither justice nor closure. Go to Death Penalty Focus to find out more and help the Justice That Works Act succeed at the ballot in November. Together, we can make the death penalty history – in California and beyond.