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Cities for Life Day

Cities For Life Day, commonly written as Day for life/against the death penalty, supports the abolition of the death penalty and celebrates the anniversary of the first time the death penalty was abolished by a government. Cesare Beccaria, an Italian writer from the Age of Enlightenment, wrote On Crimes and Punishments (or Of Crimes and Punishments). Published in 1764, it laid out some of the first modern arguments against the death penalty. It was the first full book advocating for a reform of the criminal law system, saying that criminal justice should follow rational principles. On account of the book's influence, the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, a pre-unitarian Italian state, became the first state to abolish the death penalty, on today's date in 1786. That is why November 30 was chosen as the date of Cities For Life Day.

Since its start in 2002, Cities for Life Day has been organized by the Community of Sant'Egidio, and has been supported by international human rights organizations that are part of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty. The day is the largest international mobilization against the death penalty in the world, where cities show they are against the death penalty and for a worldwide moratorium on executions. It has the objective of creating a dialogue with civil society and for involving local administrators. Cities may officially declare the date as "Day for Life / against the death penalty," and may then place "City for Life / City against the death penalty" next to their name or logo. On the day, educational and artistic events are held at squares and monuments with the goal of raising public awareness. Some ministries and representatives take part in the day.

One of the main ways cities become involved is by the lighting of symbolic monuments, which become known as "living logos." These major monuments are transformed and illuminated into symbols that show their city's commitment to ending the death penalty. Some examples of monuments that have become "living logos" in the past include the Atomium in Brussels, the Plaza de Santa Ana in Madrid, and most notably, the Colosseum in Rome, which has become the largest symbol of the day worldwide.

About 80 cities participated in the day during its first year in 2002. By 2009, more than 1,200 cities and towns were participating, including more than 60 capitals. In 2012, approximately 1,625 cities participated, 72 of which were capitals. Today, more than 2,000 cities in over 90 countries participate each year. Participating cities are located in countries that both have and do not have the death penalty.

The use of the death penalty goes back millennia. Its use was first codified in the eighteenth century BC, with the Code of Hammurabi, a legal document from ancient Babylonia. The code included the first known written laws related to the death penalty, laying out 25 crimes that were punishable by death, including murder, as well as crimes such as adultery and helping slaves escape.

Although some states in the United States still have the death penalty, and there have been times where laws related to the death penalty have become more stringent, in general, the use of the death penalty in the country has decreased. The first recorded execution in the American colonies took place in 1608, on account of treason. Other capital crimes during colonial times included murder, rape, heresy, and witchcraft. In 1682, Pennsylvania's "The Great Law or Body of Laws" came about after William Penn convened the colony's first General Assembly. It included Quaker code which limited the death penalty to treason and murder, stipulating that imprisonment would be the punishment for other crimes.

Beccaria became the first prominent European to call for the end of the death penalty with the release of On Crimes and Punishments in 1764, which brought the issue to the attention of philosophers and political leaders. Still, by 1775, as the American Revolution began, the death penalty was being used in all of the 13 American colonies. The Constitution was adopted in 1787, which said that certain forms of punishment may be banned, but implied that government executions were still permissible. Following this, in 1790, the First United States Congress established the federal death penalty, and the first person was executed by it that year. Death penalty laws soon softened a bit, after the concept of varying degrees of murder was introduced through the writings of Pennsylvania's Attorney General in 1793.

Executions were public during the early years of the country. Thousands of people would watch, and alcohol and souvenirs were sold. This practice began receiving more scrutiny in the 1830s, and there was a move towards private hangings, with states beginning to make laws to make them private. Fifteen states had adopted laws making executions private by 1849, although the last public execution in the country wasn't until 1936.

Hanging or firing squad were the main ways executions were administered in the country's early years. In 1890, New York State performed the first execution by electrocution, using an electric chair. This soon became the preferred way to administer executions. A gas chamber was first used for execution in 1924, in Carson City, Nevada. The last executions in the country by hanging, gas chamber, and firing squad took place in 1996, 1999, and 2010, respectively. The first lethal injection took place on December 7, 1982, in Texas. Three drugs were administered: barbiturate, pancuronium bromide, and potassium chloride. In 2009, Ohio became the first state to perform an execution with a one-drug intravenous injection. In 2018, fentanyl was used for the first time in an execution.

The first society for the abolition of the death penalty was formed in 1845, and during the following year, Michigan became the first state to outlaw the death penalty for all crimes except treason. In 1852, Rhode Island became the first state to outlaw the death penalty for all crimes. Another reform era in the first two decades of the twentieth century brought nine more states to abolish the death penalty.

There was another movement to do away with the death penalty in the United States during the period between 1957 and 1972. Studies on the death penalty in England and Canada were taken into account in the United States, and a handful of states ended the death penalty, including Hawaii, Alaska, Oregon, Iowa, New York, West Virginia, and New Mexico. Delaware did as well but then restored it. Michigan did away with it for all crimes but treason. On June 29, 1972, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Furman v. Georgia that the death penalty was unconstitutional as it was administered, saying it was discriminatory since it was applied arbitrarily, and that it thus violated the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Many states responded by working to find ways to change their practices so that it could be ruled constitutionally acceptable. On July 2, 1976, with the decision in Gregg v. Georgia, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the legality of the death penalty for murder. On January 17, 1977, Gary Gilmore became the first person to be executed in the United States in ten years.

In 2009, the lowest amount of death sentences were given out since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, and by 2013, support for the death penalty was at its lowest point in 40 years. Connecticut banned the death penalty in 2012, becoming the fifth state to do so in five years. Maryland became the eighteenth state to ban it in 2013. Washington state suspended it in 2014. In 2015, Pennsylvania's governor declared a moratorium on it, Nebraska's legislature banned it, and the United States Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional in Florida. It was ruled unconstitutional in Delaware and Washington State in 2018. In 2019, it was abolished in New Hampshire and California's governor declared a moratorium on it.

Still, not all changes in the United States with the death penalty in recent years have been going in the direction of doing away with it. In 2014, Tennessee passed a law allowing electrocution if lethal injection drugs aren't available, and Utah passed a similar law the following year, reinstating the option of firing squads if lethal injection drugs can't be procured. Voters in Nebraska also reinstated the death penalty in 2016. In 2019, the federal government of the United States resumed the use of the death penalty for the first time in almost two decades. The continued use of the death penalty in the United States and in various countries around the world give advocates of its abolition reason to come together today to observe Cities For Life Day.

How to Observe Cities for Life Day

Here are some ideas on how you could observe the day:

  • After getting permission for the day through your local government or mayor, give consent to the Community of Sant'Egidio to advertise your city as part of the day. Contact them to get your city involved, and to request invitations, videos, and information about worldwide initiatives. By registering the day with the Community of Sant'Egidio, it will be included on their online list and interactive map.
  • Help in designating a monument as a "living logo" and light it in a special way. Promote cultural events like concerts, videos, and conferences in conjunction with the Community of Sant'Egidio. Help get your city to place "City for Life / City against the death penalty" next to its name or logo, as well as on its website, stationery, or as part of a statement.
  • Become involved with the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty.
  • Read On Crimes and Punishments or another book about the death penalty.
  • Watch a film that explores the death penalty such as Dead Man Walking, Paths of Glory, or The Green Mile.

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