Death row on a deadline – Reporting Amnesty International’s death penalty stats

Researching and publishing an Amnesty International report is a major undertaking, which often takes many months and relies on the efforts and expertise of multiple specialist teams.

Our annual review of the death penalty worldwide, released yesterday, was no exception. Researchers, legal and policy experts, communications professionals, campaigners and others spent hundreds of hours sifting through research, analysing data and honing messages before the report saw the light of day.

Because the report is one of Amnesty’s main contributions to the international movement to abolish the death penalty, its launch each year is keenly watched by media, our partner organizations and decision-makers around the world.

In the run-up to the launch, our social media team posted curtain-raising tweets featuring quotes about the death penalty by world-renowned figures like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Sister Helen Prejean and philosopher Albert Camus.

Then, at press launches in our London headquarters as well as countries around the world from Japan to the USA to Zimbabwe, our experts briefed the media about the key trends and findings from 2014. 

Press conference to launch the Death Penalty report at Amnesty International's International Secretariat in London.
Press conference to launch the Death Penalty report at Amnesty International's International Secretariat in London.

Our top lines? An alarming number of countries used the death penalty to tackle real or perceived threats to state security and public safety linked to terrorism, crime or internal instability in 2014. As a result, there was a sharp spike in death sentences – at least 2,466 imposed globally, a 28% rise on 2013.

However, the 607 recorded executions (excluding China, where the true number remains a mystery) in 2014 actually represented a 22% drop on the previous year. And the overall trend has been positive – the number of countries executing is half what it was two decades ago, and a record 117 states backed moves at the UN to do away with the death penalty for good. Madagascar adopted a bill to abolish the death penalty and Washington became the latest US state to establish an official moratorium on executions.

The global media took note. Because Amnesty’s report gives the world’s most comprehensive figures on death sentences and executions – complete stats on some countries will never be a dead certainty due to secrecy or under-reporting – it typically ranks among the organization’s top media moments of the year.

Here is just a smattering of the widespread coverage:

Besides highlighting the latest stats, Amnesty’s report prompted discussion on some of the more probing questions the death penalty raises about respect for human rights. It also served as a platform for calling on all governments that still use the death penalty to lift the veil of secrecy and publish information about their use of the capital punishment. It has also been sparking debates about global trends in capital punishment and the actions of the international movement to abolish the practice.
Amnesty International Netherlands produced My Last Day – a chilling video interview with Anthony Graves, a man who was wrongly convicted and imprisoned for more than 18 years in the USA before he was exonerated and given a new lease on life.

And then there is the horrific story of ThankGod Ebhos, a Nigerian man who very narrowly escaped the gallows after a noose had already been placed around his neck. The authorities then threatened to haul him before a firing squad before he was finally granted clemency.

At the end of 2014, there were 20,000 people on death row in countries around the world. Like Anthony Graves and ThankGod Ebhos while they were still on death row, most of them face each new day in sheer terror.

When Amnesty International started campaigning on the death penalty in 1977, only 16 states had abolished its use. Today, 140 countries around the world have abolished the death penalty in law or practice.

Until universal abolition of the death penalty becomes a reality, Amnesty International and its partners will continue to work through the media and official advocacy channels to name and shame the small minority of governments that still cling to the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment.

Death Sentences and Executions 2014

Read our story page to find out more.