Professor emeritus shines light on capital punishment at home and abroad


Mary Atwell

For Mary Atwell, professor emeritus of criminal justice, capital punishment in the legal system has long been a research focus. Now, that research goes global.

Atwell's "An American Dilemma: International Law, Capital Punishment, and Federalism," published this month by Palgrave Macmillan, examines six cases in which the death penalty violated the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations.

"The U.S. is regarded by most of the other modern democratic nations as an outlier when it comes to the death penalty," Atwell said. "We see capital punishment as a choice of criminal justice policy, they see it as a violation of human rights."

Signatories to the Vienna Convention follow what Atwell refers to as the "international golden rule," that foreign nationals have the right to contact their nation's consular authority if detained. Although the U.S. has ratified the treaty, states have sent foreign nationals to death row without consular contact. As a result, the International Court of Justice has called for the U.S. to review violations of the convention.

While most would assume that an international treaty would be the law of the land, the Supreme Court has affirmed that, on this particular point, states have broad powers to set their own criminal justice policies, including their death penalties.

"The fact that the International Court of Justice repeatedly ruled against the procedures whereby American states put foreign nationals to death without respecting their rights under the Vienna Convention demonstrates that U.S. policy was out of harmony with other nations and their interpretation of the Convention," Atwell said.

Atwell's previous books on capital punishment include "Wretched Sisters: Gender and Capital Punishment" and "Evolving Standards of Decency: Popular Culture and Capital Punishment." She is also the author of "Equal Protection of the Law? Gender and Justice in the United States."

"Dr. Atwell is a nationally recognized death penalty scholar whose work explores important and timely issues," said Stephen Owen, chair of the Department of Criminal Justice. "Her work extends our understanding of legal, social and political issues surrounding capital punishment. It has also helped shape her seminars on the death penalty, which students have found to be thought provoking and insightful."

Atwell served as a member of Radford University faculty from 1988 until her retirement in 2013. In 2004, she was given Radford University Foundation Creative Scholarship Award.

Jun 24, 2015