Book Review - The European Prescription for Ending the Death Penalty
25 Pages Posted: 9 Mar 2011 Last revised: 24 Mar 2015
Date Written: March 8, 2011
The United States of America remains the only Western democracy that continues to use capital punishment. Europeans, particularly in the academic community, continue to express outrage and disbelief at its persistence, especially given America’s twentieth century role as the world leader in challenging abuses of human rights.
This sociological question – why the United States retains the death penalty – has spawned a burgeoning academic literature. This literature has both deepened cultural understandings of the death penalty and raised questions concerning the degree to which (and in what ways) the United States is “exceptional” when compared to other Western democracies.
What has been missing from these discussions is a thorough account of the abolition of the death penalty in European nations. Such an account helps to address a number of questions: whether culture plays a significant role in the abolition of capital punishment; whether the United States is exceptional in a way that explains the persistence of its death penalty; and whether the United States is mirroring the same trajectory of its European counterparts, albeit at a slower pace.
At its heart, the entire academic discussion is subconsciously both predictive and prescriptive. In other words, explaining the persistence of the death penalty can both predict – will the United States ever abolish the death penalty? If so, how and when? – and prescribe – is there a way to advance the United States along the path to abolition, either by following the path of the Europeans, or following a new path that takes into account the cultural distinctiveness or other exceptional features of the United States?
In his recent book, Ending the Death Penalty: the European Experience in Global Perspective, German law professor Andrew Hammel attempts to provide the missing piece to the conversation through a careful study of the death penalty’s demise in Europe. He focuses on three nations – Germany, Great Britain, and France – and provides a detailed, play-by-play analysis of the events that led to abolition of the death penalty in each country. In addition to the value of this history itself, Hammel attempts to situate these parallel developments in a broader context by linking them together to delineate the European “path to abolition.” Finally, Hammel tackles the meta question – why have these patterns not become manifest in the United States – and outlines his view of death penalty persistence in America.
This book review first describes the conclusions reached by Hammel, as drawn from his compelling narrative of three parallel abolitions. The review then assesses Hammel’s arguments as to why the European model has seemingly had no impact in the United States. Finally, this review situates Hammel’s contributions within the broader debate, arguing that insights from the European experience can serve as a catalyst for death penalty abolition in the United States.
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