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Despite decline in support, new legislation is being enacted that allows the death penalty in the United States to continue

She became interested in the topic when she worked as a paralegal at a state law firm in the United States that only represented clients sentenced to death. Shortly before Christmas last year, at Linnaeus University, Emma Ricknell publicly defended her doctoral thesis on the topic of legislation relating to the death penalty in the United States. Despite the fact that most states work to abolish the death penalty, or at least limit the practice of it, the dissertation shows that this comes with many challenges.

After having peaked in the 1990s, the number of death sentences and executions in the U.S. have declined, and many of the U.S. states are becoming increasingly restrictive in their practice and implementation of the death penalty. An approach that has also gained support from the U.S. population. However, the death penalty is still being used in certain states and legislation aiming to maintain the use of death penalty continue to be proposed and enacted.

The dissertation Death Penalty in Decline – Brakes and Accelerators in U.S. State Legislatures consists of four studies in which Emma Ricknell, lecturer in political science at Linnaeus University, has studied more than 3,000 legislative bill proposals concerning death penalty in 38 of the U.S. states covering the years 1999–2018.

“The dissertation deals with different aspects of how U.S. states legislate concerning the death penalty. The death penalty in the U.S has been studied in detail for a long time within different disciplines, however, when it comes to legislation – both legislation that aims to limit the death penalty and legislation that aims to increase it – there has not been as much research studying what factors may affect the development”, Ricknell explains.

When Emma Ricknell lived in the U.S. for a few years, she worked as a paralegal at a state legal firm in San Francisco. The firm only represented one type of client; those sentenced to death in California.

Ricknell helped investigate death sentence cases and build appeals against death sentences. Her job also included visiting those on death row at San Quentin prison. After a couple of years, she started thinking about how the system really worked – or did not work.

“The state of California halted executions in 2006, but the system is flooded with death sentences. This in a state that for a long time has been dominated by politicians who represent the Democratic Party – a party normally associated with opposition to the death penalty. After some time, I also realised that there was a huge variation between the different states and I wanted to learn more about what factors in the context of state legislatures had an effect on developments at state level”, Ricknell continues.

Ricknell herself collected and coded the over 3,000 bill proposals on which the dissertation is based. Once she started going through the material, she soon realised that there was a number of patterns. Some that were more or less unexplored, while others confirmed previous research.

“For instance, I saw that there were individual state legislators who were very committed when it comes to trying to limit or even abolish the death penalty through legislation, and that they in some cases, through their long-standing commitment, contributed to the development towards a reduced use of the death penalty”, says Ricknell.

The general trend in the world is also that the number of countries with the death penalty is decreasing. However, there are countries, also in Europe, where voices are being raised to reinstate the death penalty. Even though there is a broad consensus at EU level on the abolishment of the death penalty, discussions arise every now and then about reinstating it in individual countries, in particular when extremely serious crimes have been committed.

“For several decades, the number of countries globally that practice the death penalty has been decreasing. In Europe, it is only Belarus that still practices the death penalty, but Belarus is not a member of the EU, and will not be able to become one without abolishing the death penalty”, Ricknell continues.

In addition to now having presented her dissertation, Ricknell has three other degrees on her CV; a master’s in political science and a master’s in peace studies, as well as a journalist degree. She has studied at Umeå University (her home university), University of Gothenburg, University of Bradford in Great Britain, and one semester at Stellenbosch University in South Africa.

“I want to continue doing research and, if I can land a position, would like to focus on other things than what my dissertation was about. For instance, social media and our new, constantly transforming media landscape”, Ricknell concludes.

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