The United States was the only Western democracy that executed prisoners last year, even as an increasing number of U.S. states are moving to abolish the death penalty, Amnesty International announced Monday.
America's 43 executions in 2011 ranked it fifth in the world in capital punishment, the rights group said in its annual review of worldwide death penalty trends. U.S. executions were down from 46 a year earlier.
"If you look at the company we're in globally, it's not the company we want to be in: China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq," Suzanne Nossell, executive director of Amnesty International USA, told The Associated Press.
The United States seems deeply divided on the issue.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry was cheered at a Republican presidential candidates' debate last September when he defended his signature on 234 execution warrants over more than 10 years as being the "ultimate justice."
Just weeks later, young people rallied in person and online to protest the execution of Troy Davis in Georgia for the 1991 murder of a police officer. In the intervening years, key witnesses for the prosecution had recanted or changed their stories.
"I think the debate on the issue may be nearing a tipping point in this country," Nossell said. "I think we're seeing momentum at the state level, in the direction of waning support for the death penalty."
Illinois banned the death penalty last year, and Oregon adopted a moratorium on executions.
Maryland and Connecticut are close to banning executions, Amnesty said. And more than 800,000 Californians signed petitions to put a referendum on the state ballot in November that would abolish the death penalty.
However, 34 U.S. states have the death penalty.
Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which tracks U.S. trends, told the AP that last year 78 prisoners received death sentences, down from an average of more than 300 annually a few years ago. "Executions peaked in 1999 at 98," he added. "By all measures, the death penalty is on the defensive."
Dieter attributed much of the decline to the introduction of DNA testing, which has exposed some mistaken convictions. With stronger defense tactics and appeals processes getting longer, U.S. states also found it more and more expensive to pursue death penalty cases, he said.
The United States was the only member of the G-8 group of developed nations to use the death penalty last year. Japan, which also retains capital punishment, recorded no executions for the first time in 19 years, Amnesty reported.
"Our government has made a very strong point of trying to reassert its position as a standard-bearer on human rights globally," Nossell said. "When other countries look at the United States, the use of the death penalty really stands out a lot in the mind of Europeans and others around the world. We're in such incongruous company."
Mexico strongly protested the July execution in the U.S. of one of its citizens, Humberto Leal, for rape and murder on the grounds that he had not been advised of his rights to receive legal advice and assistance from his consulate. The Vienna Convention on Consular Relations is supposed to guarantee the right of any citizen to consular help.
Leal was one of 51 Mexican men who have been sentenced to death in the United States after being denied consular assistance, Amnesty said. The International Court of Justice had ordered a full review of all these cases after Texas executed another Mexican man in 2008.
The U.S. federal stance on capital punishment was complicated by the Defense Department's announcement that it would seek the death penalty for six foreign nationals detained at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for trial by military commission. Amnesty contends that military commissions are discriminatory because they do not give foreign citizens the same right to appeal as U.S. courts.