Here's What’s Happening in New Zealand 25 Years After Abolishing the Death Penalty


Home to a Western-style democracy and capitalist free market economy, New Zealand has not executed anyone since 1957. In 1989, the Kiwis formally abolished the death penalty for all crimes, including treason. 

"The death penalty violates the right to life and is the ultimate cruel and inhuman punishment," Rebecca Emery, the campaigns director for Amnesty International in New Zealand, told Mic in an email. "There is no evidence that the death penalty has a greater deterrent effect on crime than terms of imprisonment or any other punishment."

While there is deadly violent crime in New Zealand, it occurs at considerably lower across-the-board rates than in the U.S. United Nations statistics show that, between 2010 and 2012, an American was five times more likely to be murdered than the average Kiwi. Overall crime rates in New Zealand in 2013 were their lowest in the 24 years since abolition, Emery told Mic. 

So what is driving down the number of murders in New Zealand? 

"Prevention" as the solution: In 2011, the country recorded a total of 34 killings, its lowest in a quarter-century. Police Deputy Commissioner Viv Rickard credited "innovative campaigns, a focus on family violence and support from partner agencies" as the driving factors, according to Stuff.

"We've had a real focus on prevention and we'll continue to do so," Rickard told Radio New Zealand News. "We think we can stop crime; we think when we can identify patterns, we can do something about it — and that's what we've been doing. We've been putting our police officers back into neighborhoods, and that's been welcomed by the public."

New Zealand Police

The concept is not a completely foreign one. American cities have for more than two decades invested in proactive policing practices. But as we have seen with increasing clarity over the past 10 years, those policies have corrosive side effects, especially in minority communities. The ubiquity of officers, whether rolling through a neighborhood in a marked cruiser or plainclothes and carrying out constitutionally dubious "stop and frisk" body searches, can take an unseen toll, even as top-line crime rates taper.

"Prevention" takes a different tone in New Zealand. The country's "National Operating Strategy," published in 2011 as part of a five-year plan to decrease violent crime, focuses heavily on efforts to "improve our response to women and children subjected to family violence by engaging more effectively internally," and through close engagement "between Family Violence coordinators, Child Protection Teams and Pacific, Ethnic and Iwi liaison officers."

The Center for American Progress reported in 2014 that, between 2001 through 2012, "6,410 women were murdered in the United States by an intimate partner using a gun — more than the total number of U.S. troops killed in action during the entirety of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined." 

The easy availability of firearms (the number of guns per household in the U.S. is nearly four times the total in New Zealand), combined with a police culture in the U.S. that's proven itself poorly suited to dealing effectively with domestic violence, suggests significant reform is both necessary and unlikely to come anytime soon.

The death penalty in the U.S.: In 2013, only four countries reported executing more convicts than the United States — China, which kills thousands every year, led the way, with Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia in its wake. The U.S. and Japan were the only liberal democracies on Amnesty International's short list of countries who routinely employ capital punishment.

Despite compelling evidence the death penalty is an ineffective deterrent against violent crime, applied disproportionately to minorities, often used on wrongly convicted men and woman, and not, as supporters claim, a mostly painless and "humane" exercise, 35 prisoners were given a lethal injection in 2014. One man, a murderer and rapist from Oklahoma, died of a heart attack 43 minutes after a botched execution left him "writhing" in view of civilian witnesses and reporters. One of his veins, an official later explained, had "exploded." 

And yet, the majority of Americans — 63%, according to a Gallup survey from October 2014 — say they support capital punishment as just desserts "for a person convicted of murder." That number hasn't fallen below 60% since 1972, and only four times in nearly 80 years of Gallup polling has it failed to achieve the majority's backing.   

The terrorism question: "The prospect of execution is unlikely to act as a deterrent to people prepared to kill and injure for the sake of a political or other ideology," Emery told Mic. "It has been repeatedly pointed out that those who are executed can be perceived as martyrs whose memory becomes a rallying point for their ideology or organizations." 

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the recently convicted Boston Marathon bomber, went ahead with his and brother Tamerlan's plot despite the possibility that he'd face the federal death penalty in the aftermath. Tsarnaev's lawyers are working now to spare his life, but the nature of the 21-year-old's arrest — particularly the note scrawled on the wall of the boat in which he hid — and the fate of his brother suggests the prospect of death was not a prevailing concern. 

Sean Murphy/AP

The main perpetrator of the country's most deadly act of domestic terrorism — only the 9/11 attacks, which were carried out by foreigners, killed more — actively sought to die by the government's hand. After being sentenced to death for his role in the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City, which killed 167 people (19 children among them), Timothy McVeigh told his lawyers to drop their appeals and even lobbied unsuccessfully to have his June 11, 2001, execution broadcast live. 

An uphill fight: New Zealand's "Prevention First" manual also addresses "understanding and responding to the drivers of crime" with particular urgency. "Police will work with other agencies, service providers and the community, particularly Maori, Pacific and ethnic groups, to address the underlying causes of offending and victimization," the policy states.

But before these technocratic policy initiatives, however appealing, can take hold, the conscience of a society must spur it to action. That cultural shift, made decades earlier, is evident in the congruity between New Zealand's activist community and its former prime minister.

"Experience shows that executions brutalize everyone involved in the process, and nowhere has it been shown that the death penalty has any special power to reduce crime or political violence," Amnesty's New Zealand executive director Ced Simpson said in a statement on Oct. 10, 2007. That same day, then-Prime Minister Helen Clark delivered a statement to the United Nations, declaring, "Capital punishment is the ultimate form of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment."

In 2015, it's hard to imagine a U.S. president or high-powered public office-holder saying the same. The bipartisan unwillingness to confront these unpopular truths, along with the increasingly sadistic nature of the practice — Utah's governor recently signed a law, which even he called "a little bit gruesome," to bring back the firing squad — suggests that popular opinion, however misguided, will win this day and many more to come. 

Until then, it will be up to activists to continue making their case and, more importantly, forging new alliances for what is sure to be a long fight. If they are looking for a compelling new argument, New Zealand's story would be a good place to start.

This post has been updated.