by Jon Yorke (ed). Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2008. 334pp. Cloth. $124.95/£65.00. ISBN: 9780754674139.

Reviewed by Samuel B. Hoff, Department of History, Political Science, and Philosophy, Delaware State University. Email: shoff [at]


Editor Jon Yorke, a Lecturer in Law at Britain’s University of Surrey School of Law, has published extensively on the death penalty and worked on death penalty projects in Britain, the United States, and Africa. He observes that all of the book’s contributors “provide a valuable engagement, in various ways, with the abolitionist pedagogy and they demonstrate that an educative process is still required” (Preface, xiv) and that the text shows “that the world should do without the repugnant punishment of death” (p.xv). The twelve chapters are divided into three parts, including (I) regional conspectus and analysis; (II) perspectives and questions for retentionist countries; and (III) overview of abolitionist strategies and alternatives to the death penalty.

After an Introduction, Part I comprises Chapters 2 through 5. In Chapter 2, Ireland scholar William Schabas traces actions opposing the death penalty which transpired in the United Nations (UN) from its inception in 1945 through 2007. In certain instances, provisions prohibiting or limiting capital punishment were included as part of treaties, declarations, conventions, or protocols. In other cases, a separate resolution advocating elimination of the death penalty was initiated. Examples of the latter strategy occurred in the 1968, 1997, and 2000 annual sessions of the UN Commission on Human Rights. Sometimes, anti-death penalty actions were taken by individual nations, such as in the case of Italy’s 1994 proposal for a moratorium on executions. On the other hand, the entire European Union sponsored the resolution opposing capital punishment which was approved by the UN General Assembly in December 2007. Book editor Jon Yorke contributes Chapter 3 on how the Council of Europe has led the way in renouncing use of the death penalty. All of the signatories to the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights opposed capital punishment. From that time until 1981, four European nations ceased utilization of the death penalty, so that by 1981 all Western European nations stood united in opposition. During the present decade, only a few nations in Central and Eastern Europe have not ratified specific parts of the European Convention on Human Rights which contain limits of the use of the death penalty. Chapter 4 on capital punishment in Africa is offered by Lilian Chenwi, a senior researcher on the topic at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa. Approximately one-quarter of nations on the continent have outlawed the use of the death penalty in law and practice. One of the major organizations fighting to eradicate the death penalty is the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, which was established in 1987 as a monitoring mechanism under the African Charter. The [*561] aforementioned group passed a resolution for a moratorium on capital punishment in 1999 and likewise created a Working Group on the Death Penalty. British barrister Quincy Whitaker contributes Chapter 5 on the manner by which Caribbean countries have dealt with capital punishment. While most of the nations in this region historically tapped the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council – composed of Law Lords from the British House of Lords – for judicial rulings, the creation of the Caribbean Court of Justice in 2005 was viewed as an alternative jurisdiction. The combination of these competing courts and the legacy of colonial domination has led to retention of capital punishment in several Caribbean nations.

Part II of the book reviews recent trends on the death penalty in nations which have used the punishment for a prolonged period. Chapters 6, 7, and 8 highlight the United States. Chapter 6, by Julian Killingly of Birmingham City University in England, presents an overview of the background of capital punishment in America. Probably the most valuable element of this chapter is the discussion of classes of offenders who have been exempted from execution as a result of recent Supreme Court decisions, including mentally retarded and juveniles. In Chapter 7, University of Surrey School of Law Lecturer Jane Marriott probes the manner by which delays in post-conviction executions have become a rallying cry for those opposing capital punishment. In Chapter 8, New York City attorney Richard Dieter relays the results of a March 2007 National Omnibus Poll on the death penalty. He notes that respondents’ support for the death penalty is reduced when issues such as innocent people sentenced to execution, cost of executions, and the uneven application of executions based on race, gender, and geography are considered.

Chapters 9 and 10 describe Asian nations which have retained the death penalty. Nicola Macbean, founding director of the The Rights Practice, a non-government organization devoted to adherence with international human rights standards, contributes Chapter 9 on China. As a communist country with a long, dynastic history, China is less vulnerable to international pressure to abolish capital punishment than most nations. In the contemporary period, China has been inconsistent in its approach to this issue. For instance, revisions of the Criminal Procedure Law in 1979 and 1996 strengthened protections for defendants. However, these advances were mitigated by the Strike Hard campaign of 1983-1987 and by the brutal response to the Tiananmen Square democracy protests in 1989. Although the Supreme People’s Court stated its intention to reform the death penalty in the current decade, government reaction to several events pointed to its continued use. Chapter 10 is written by Sangmin Bae, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Northeastern Illinois University. The purpose of the chapter is to compare how two East Asian nations, South Korea and Taiwan, have lessened utilization of capital punishment in recent years despite strong public support for its retention. While South Korea imposed a moratorium on executions in 1997 which is still in effect, Taiwan has not performed any executions since 2006. In both nations, advocacy groups have sought to reform [*562] the respective judicial systems. Finally, recent leaders in both countries have been vocal in opposition to the death penalty.

Part III of the text contains the final two chapters. In Chapter 11, Lina Gyllensten and Peter Hodgkinson of the University of Westminster School of Law in England present various proposals to eradicate capital punishment, including following international convention protocols, focusing on factors which reduce public support for executions, recommending implementation of moratoriums, continuing litigation efforts, and offering an alternative punishment to death. Rachael Stokes of the Penal Reform International group contributes Chapter 12, which concentrates on life without parole as the most legitimate alternative to execution. While recognizing that life imprisonment may have different meaning in various nations and contains its own set of shortcomings, Stokes nonetheless documents how several nations and states within the United States have chosen this path for punishment over the death penalty. Yorke’s edited volume may be compared to other recent books which examine capital punishment from a cross-national perspective. A 2005 edited book by Austin Sarat and Christian Boulanger probes how the death penalty is administered in eleven different nations. This text is about fifty pages longer that the Yorke text and has three more contributors, though Sangmin Bae authors chapters in both books. Other experts who offered chapters in the Yorke book published their own single-author international studies of capital punishment, including William Schabas in 2002 and Roger Hood in 2003. A 2004 book by Carsten Anckar evaluates determinants of the death penalty using a comparative approach. Two other recent books assess the use of capital punishment in single countries, including Robert Turrell’s 2004 study of the death penalty in South Africa and a 2005 examination of executions in China by Hong Lu and Terance Miethe.

The Yorke text clearly continues a decade-long trend toward global studies of the death penalty topic. The contributors are well-known experts, many of whom have published their own research on capital punishment. Yet, there are some deficiencies in both organization and content. First, the inclusion of three chapters on America’s utilization of capital punishment in Part II creates an imbalance. Because Chapters 6 and 7 overlap somewhat and are distinct from the Chapter 8 focus on public attitudes about the death penalty, one of the aforementioned chapters could be eliminated. Second, Part III ends without a dedicated Conclusion chapter. Given that void, the order of the two chapters found here should be switched, such that Chapter 11 on various alternative strategies to the death penalty should follow Chapter 12 on the specific proposal of life imprisonment. Third, while the content of information within chapters is generally adequate, the repeated reference to international treaties, conventions, and protocols probably necessitates including some of those documents in appendices to the book, even if in an excerpted form. Fourth, while the first seven chapters of the text employ footnotes as the main citation protocol, the final five chapters either use the in-text citation format or mix the in-text method with explanatory notes. [*563]

Despite the flaws discussed above, AGAINST THE DEATH PENALTY: INTERNATIONAL INITIATIVES AND IMPLICATIONS makes a positive contribution to the literature on the death penalty. At the least, the book reminds us that the fight to eliminate capital punishment in the United States cannot be properly understood without awareness of how other regions of the world or individual nations treat the death penalty.

Hood, Roger. 2003. THE DEATH PENALTY: A WORLDWIDE PERSPECTIVE. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lu, Hong, and Terance D. Miethe. 2007. CHINA’S DEATH PENALTY: HISTORY, LAW, AND CONTEMPORARY PRACTICES. New York: Routledge.

Sarat, Austin, and Christian Boulanger (eds). 2005. THE CULTURAL LIVES OF CAPITAL PUNISHMENT: COMPARATIVE PERSPECTIVES. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.

Schabas, William A. 2002. THE ABOLITION OF THE DEATH PENALTY IN INTERNATIONAL LAW. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Turrell, Robert. 2004. WHITE MERCY: A STUDY OF THE DEATH PENALTY IN SOUTH AFRICA. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

© Copyright 2009 by the author, Samuel B. Hoff.