This man came from Rome to show Americans why the death penalty is wrong

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 21, was sentenced to death in Boston on May 15.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 21, was sentenced to death in Boston on May 15.
Image: EPA/Jane Flavell Collins
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Today, 105 countries around the world have abolished the death penalty by law and 43 more have approved public or de facto moratoria against it. Among them are Gabon and Mongolia, Cambodia and Russia, Albania and Kyrgyzstan. In Cuba, death row is currently empty.

Worldwide, only a few dozens countries still stick to the death penalty, opposing the 2007 UN resolution that called for a global moratorium on its use. Among them, the most prolific executioners are China, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States, which has killed more than 1,400 people since 1976. Currently, the US holds more than 3,000 people in death row, including recently-sentenced Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

“Some US citizens, especially in the South, grew up with the idea that retributive justice is the only justice,” explains Italian journalist and human right activist Mario Marazziti to Quartz. “This opinion is sometimes based on a fundamentalist reading of the Old Testament.”

Marazziti, 62, is the spokeperson for the Community of Sant’Egidio, a Rome-based Catholic movement for peacemaking and human rights, and a co-founder of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty. In the 1990s, Marazziti collected 3 million signatures in 157 countries calling for a worldwide moratorium against the death penalty.

In 2011, he led the Community of Sant’Egidio’s pressure on the Italian government to ensure that pharmaceutical company Hospira would not use its manufacturing facility in northern Italy to produce the anesthetic sodium thiopental, used in a cocktail of drugs for lethal injection in the United States. By the end of that year, led by Italy’s example, the European Union banned the export of “any products which could be used for the execution of human beings by means of lethal injection” to the United States.

The European Union is already death-penalty free. “We still look up at the US as the land of freedom, liberty, democracy,” says Marazziti. “When we see things like the fact that Utah has gone back to use the firing squad, we not only think it’s barbaric, we see it as unacceptable. We say that out of love for America, which is a sister democracy to our European ones.”

Marazziti has travelled extensively in the United States to research capital punishment and build networks of local activist groups against the death penalty. He has met with prison guards and pastors, lawyers, politicians, people in the death row, their families, their victims’ families. When, in 2002, the US Supreme Court ruled the execution of mentally disabled offenders unconstitutional due to “currently prevailing standards of decency,” he was happy to note that America was ready to change, after all.

It was a small crack in a system that had remained pretty much the same since the 1970s. Still, like every crack, it was ready to expand. Since 2007, six states—New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Illinois, Connecticut and Maryland—have abolished the death penalty.

“It’s due to many factors,” says Marazziti. “The public opinion, the pressure movements, a more enlightened ruling class, the international isolation on the issue, the fact that there’s no proof of a direct correlation between crime rate and number of executions. Also the crisis of legal injection: botched executions, in which the victim takes forty or fifty minutes to die agonizing in front of everyone, are incompatible with our civilization.”

In March 2015, Marazzitti published a book in English, titled 13 Ways of Looking at the Death Penalty. It is a deeply-researched manifesto against capital punishment, which also highlights pragmatic incentives for ending the death penalty in the United States, such as cost-savings and relief from bureaucratic burdens: All of the fourteen people executed so far in 2015 had spent more than ten years in the death row, and currently, California’s Supreme Court spends one third of its time just dealing with appeals against the death penalty.

San Quentin State Prison in California houses the world’s largest death row, with 750 detainees. “They are currently executing a person every two or three years,” says Marazzitti, “At this rate, they would need 2000 years to free the death row. […] The system is going into bureaucratic and financial bankruptcy.”

Then there are the wrongful convictions. Since the 1990s, 324 people have been released from US prison thanks to DNA testing. Twenty of them had been sentenced to death. Marazziti estimates that around one out of seven people currently in the death row in the US are innocent.

But perhaps Marazzitti’s most compelling argument is a single truth: the death penalty is murder. Literally. When Dominique Green, a longtime pen pal of Marazzitti and a death row inmate in Livingston, Texas, was executed in October 2004, the coroner wrote on his death certificate: “Cause of Death: Homicide.”

“The death penalty is the synthesis of all possible human rights violations,” Marazziti says. He and the Community of Sant’Egidio are currently supporting grassroots and political initiatives across the world, from the Caribbeans to Indonesia, but the US remains their main target.

With 32 US states still holding on to the death penalty, abolitionists and moratorium advocates alike have a long slog ahead. But it’s worth it, according to Marazzitti. “If we succeeded in abolishing it in the US, that would change the world’s attitude against the death penalty, forever.”