Billionaire Richard Branson Leads Business Push to Abolish Death Penalty

A coalition of business leaders led by Richard Branson is organizing to abolish capital punishment across the world, with a focus on the U.S., amid a broader global push for racial and economic justice.

Branson is expected to announce the Business Leaders’ Declaration Against the Death Penalty on Thursday with a presentation at the virtual South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas.

Billionaire Richard Branson Leads Business Push to Abolish Death Penalty

The declaration was organized by the U.K.-based Responsible Business Initiative for Justice and has 21 initial signatories. They include Michael Novogratz, chief executive officer of Galaxy Digital and a former Fortress Investment Group executive; telecom billionaire Mo Ibrahim; Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, the founders of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream; and Dr. Helene Gayle, CEO of the Chicago Community Trust and a director at Coca-Cola Co. and Colgate-Palmolive Co.

The group is betting that because corporations are now compelled to both recognize and act against issues such as systemic racism, the topic of capital punishment could gain a new priority among business and political leaders. Several elements of the death-penalty debate -- sentencing disparities that focus on low-income defendants, the recurrence of exonerated defendants and high legal costs to taxpayers -- could play into the current conversation on racial justice.

“I couldn’t sort of stand back and just let people continue to be executed for crimes they didn’t commit,” Branson said in an interview with Bloomberg Television. “And we decided to try to rally business leaders to speak out strongly about it.”

The campaign will collect additional signatories from the business community -- including companies -- to support death-penalty abolition measures. The organization plans to release a larger signatory list on Oct. 10.

“We can no longer stay silent on issues of inequality, and no issue is more intricately tied to the racial and socio-economic biases that permeate justice systems than the death penalty,” according to the group’s declaration. Capital punishment does not make communities safer or serve as a deterrent, the group said, while causing a “wasteful and ineffective mis-allocation of public resources.”

About 50 nations still have capital punishment laws and 30 have conducted at least one execution since 2013, according to the business organization. More than 170 United Nations member states have abolished the death penalty from law or halted its use.

“This is a completely new moment in the movement,” said Celia Ouellette, the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice’s founder and CEO, citing President Joe Biden’s public opposition to capital punishment, the Black Lives Matter movement and George Floyd’s killing in late May. “You can create a lot of change quickly.”

President Donald Trump’s administration revived federal executions in 2019 following a 17-year suspension, with 13 inmates killed in the final seven months of his term, including three prisoners executed the week before Biden’s inauguration.

“The federal execution spree made a lot of people feel pretty sick,” Ouellette said Tuesday in a video call. She noted the Jan. 16 execution of U.S. prisoner Dustin Higgs and said his death would have been unlikely four days later, once Biden’s term had begun. Trump had enlisted capital punishment as a “political tool” during his last months in office, which had helped to spur the abolition campaign, she said.

Biden could reinstate the prior moratorium on U.S. executions although Congress would need to legislate any end to capital punishment at the federal level. At his confirmation hearings, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said he had developed concerns about the federal death penalty in the 20 years since the U.S. executed Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, an investigation that Garland helped lead.

China is the leader in annual executions -- believed to total thousands -- although the country says that information is a state secret, according to Amnesty International. Excluding China, the organization tallied 657 executions in 20 countries in 2019.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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