“I have always been disgusted by the death penalty and I decided that I could not as a human being, condone it, even by abstention”
-Albert Camus in a letter to Marcel Ayme
Why are so many Europeans opposed to the death penalty? There are various reasons for this. Some say that overall Europeans are simply a more compassionate people. It has also been said that the overwhelming opposition to capital punishment in Europe is the intellectual result of a deep and expansive psychosociopolitical analysis — it is about logic, history, government power, the state’s duty to its citizens, the very fundamentals of the structure of society...
All of the countries in Europe dealt with the death penalty debate long ago and came to the conclusion: capital punishment must be abolished. The last state sanctioned execution in modern Europe occurred in Ukraine in 1997. Europeans tend to be absolutely repulsed by the death penalty — “disgusted” as Albert Camus expressed. In his book, Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution, the retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens describes several noteworthy interactions he had with Europeans in which the death penalty was discussed.
In 1982 during a SCOTUS (Supreme Court) oral argument in a capital case, an audience member conducted an anti- death penalty protest demonstration. He stood up and started to take his clothes off and the court police removed him.
A few days after this, Justice Stevens and his wife Maryan, attended a state dinner at the White House. She was seated next to the director of the US Information Agency (USIA) and he was seated at President Reagan's table next to Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. Assuming that she would be interested in the description of the strange court proceedings, he told Queen Beatrix about the undressing protester. As Stevens notes, he could not have been more misguided “as a raconteur, I really laid an egg”.
His wife, however, got along wonderfully with her dinner partner. As a result of this they received an invitation from USIA to travel to Helsinki to represent the US at an event celebrating the fortieth anniversary of an organisation formed to maintain friendly relations between the US and Finland. After arriving, Justice Stevens and his wife Maryan attended a press conference arranged by their ambassador.
The approximately one dozen Finnish news media representatives in attendance made the entire news conference consist of variations on just one question: Why does the United States still have the death penalty? Stevens notes that in attempting to answer the question, he “must have laid another egg because it was obvious that none of the reporters were favourably impressed by anything I said to justify that institution”.
Now really feel this next line I'm citing from Justice Stevens: “Over the years since my visit to Finland, I have concluded that the Federal Constitution should also either be construed or amended to avoid the risk of an innocent person being executed”. Think of the power of that fact that he specifically mentions his visit to Finland in this context. Justice Stevens' book is divided into six chapters:
Chapter I: The Anti-Commandeering Rule
Chapter II: Political Gerrymandering
Chapter III: Campaign Finance
Chapter IV: Sovereign Immunity
Chapter V: The Death Penalty
Chapter VI: The Second Amendment (Gun Control)
He proposes that 6 US Constitutional Amendments be passed to correct societal problems involving the six chapter subjects. Justice Stevens says that he believes the validity of his proposals will become evident as time passes and that they will eventually be adopted. He notes that “the purpose of this book is to expedite that process and to avoid the future crises before they occur.” Only in the death penalty chapter ― in which he argues for a constitutional ban on capital punishment — does he mention interactions with Europeans. I think it could certainly be said that Justice Stevens' interactions with Queen Beatrix and the Finnish reporters directly contributed to changing his mind on capital punishment.
Consequently, shortly after his retirement in 2010, in an NPR Interview with Nina Totenberg, Stevens said that in his entire career, there was only one vote that he wished he could change: his vote in the 1976 Jurek v. Texas case that upheld Texas' revised death penalty statute.
People in many European countries have greatly contributed to the cause of death penalty abolition, and helped advance the fight for Criminal Justice Reform in the US. The story of Justice Stevens, Queen Beatrix and the valiant and straight up badass Finnish reporters is an interesting historical example of Europeans standing in this righteous tradition. I very deeply appreciate those in Europe who continue to do this awesome, powerful and impactful work. I also feel a profound sense of gratitude and appreciation for everyone in Europe who supports my personal case and cause — which is indeed a part of the overall fight for criminal justice reform. You all are just SO VERY AWESOME!
Keep fighting this righteous fight and know that I will relentlessly do the same from the confines of this wretched cage — and my work will continue after I am released. Logic demands this. Compassion demands this. It is the only way.