Sociedad, Estado y pena de muerte

The Times Literary Supplement publica una interesante reseña crítica de Nicola Lacey sobre el libro Peculiar Institution. America’s death penalty in an age of abolition de David Garland. Se trata de un estudio, con perspectiva histórica y comparada, sobre el surgimiento y declive gradual de la pena de muerte. Para Garland, hay ciertas condiciones que favorecen la existencia de la pena capital en democracias avanzadas (descentralizadas) como la de Estados Unidos: intereses de fiscales y abogados, intereses electorales de políticos populistas, intereses de algunos grupos sociales, etc. Por el contrario, hay circunstancias como la homogeneidad y solidaridad sociales, los bajos niveles de violencia, confianza en el gobierno, una burocracia profesional, instituciones políticas fuertes y centralizadas, que han sido sustento de medidas abolicionistas (es el caso de Michigan).

A decir de Nicola Lacey, este libro de David Garland es una contribución al entendimiento no sólo de la pena capital en Estados Unidos, sino también de la relación entre castigo, Estado y sociedad. Va un fragmento:

On September 21, twenty years after his conviction for the murder of the off-duty police officer Mark MacPhail, Troy Davis was executed by lethal injection in Jackson, Georgia. The execution bore all the hallmarks of a typical capital case in contemporary America. Davis was a young African American man, convicted in a Southern state; his execution was greeted with satisfaction by the victim’s family and by outrage on the part of opponents of the death penalty. Also typical was the fact that his twenty-year wait on death row had been attended by all the trappings of due process: his case was the subject of multiple court and Parole Board decisions, including three by the federal Supreme Court (the last only hours before his execution on the fourth date set for that event between 2007 and 2011). The only unusual feature of Davis’s case was that the objections being raised were not simply about the propriety of the death penalty in general or about whether he was of sufficient mental capacity to be subject to the most extreme sanction, but were primarily about the accuracy of his conviction. Davis, who consistently maintained his innocence, had been convicted on the basis of the eyewitness testimony of nine people, seven of whom later revoked their evidence. Why would the world’s largest and most influential democracy maintain its commitment to an exorbitantly costly institution which involves such high-profile risks to its reputation as a respecter of human rights, and from which all other Western countries have distanced themselves?

In Peculiar Institution, David Garland brings a distinctive approach to explaining why the United States stands alone in retaining capital punishment, thus exposing itself to the outcry we have witnessed over the past few weeks. Instead of asking why America bucked the Western trend towards abolition, Garland sets out to discover what made abolition possible for other countries. By putting the rise and (gradual) fall of capital punishment in a broad historical and comparative perspective, he is able to develop a subtle account of the changing forms and functions of capital punishment over time and of its relationship to the formation of states.

Until the last forty years, America participated in the gradual move towards restriction, restraint, standardization and judicialization, albeit at a slower and more uneven rate than other countries. Indeed, some American states – notably Michigan, which abolished the death penalty in 1846 – were in the vanguard of reform. Garland suggests that the key conditions underpinning reform or abolition are social homogeneity and solidarity, low levels of violence, trust in government, an independent professional bureaucracy, and strong and centralized political institutions. This explains both Michigan’s decision to abolish capital punishment in the mid-nineteenth century (when it had a homogeneous population and an organized and powerful political elite) and the failure of the abolitionist movement in the 1960s and 70s, by which time America was in the grip of a backlash against the Civil Rights reforms, the Great Society programmes and the liberalism of the Warren Court. In the context of the distinctively fragmented structure of the American political system, this environment meant that the liberal elites, who had elsewhere succeeded in overturning the anti-abolitionist will of the majority, were powerless to do so

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