DPRU Research

The Death Penalty Research Unit (DPRU) is international in its reach and considers all jurisdictions that retain the death penalty. It pays particular attention, however, to South and Southeast Asia, the Commonwealth countries of Africa and the Caribbean, and the Middle East, where there are few due process protections and the death penalty is retained for crimes that are not typically thought of as the most serious.

For many years, death penalty research at Oxford has been undertaken in partnership with The Death Penalty Project (DPP), a legal action charity based in London. The DPRU also works with a number of other civil society organisations around the world, including Atma Jaya Catholic University of Indonesia, LBH Masyarakat in Indonesia and the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR).

The DPRU’s previous research has taken a broad-brush approach to surveying each aspect of the death penalty in all retentionist jurisdictions, including producing an authoritative international survey of the death penalty

More recently, the DPRU’s research has focused on two main areas: i) analysis of death row populations, or who is on death row and ii) understanding the barriers to abolition in countries which still have death penalty laws, or why the death penalty is retained.

Who is on death row?

Mapping Death Row

While various organisations such as Amnesty International produce annual reports that seek to establish how many people are on death row or have been executed in retentionist countries, these aggregate data cannot tell us whether certain people are more vulnerable to being sentenced to death or what types of offences have been committed by those people. The DPRU is seeking to map death rows on the continents we work in by gathering case-based data.

In August 2023, the DPRU launched its ‘Foreign Nationals on Death Row’ database, mapping over 1,200 cases of foreign nationals at risk of the death penalty across Asia and the Middle East. Created thanks to collaborative work with a network of civil society organisations and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the interactive database records socio-demographic, jurisdictional and offence-related data as well as hosting country reports, thematic reports, case studies and other resources on each retentionist country in the regions.

Building on the success of this model, the DPRU is currently developing a second interactive database to map cases of individuals on death row for drug offences across Asia and the Middle East, as part of its three-year ESRC research project on the use of the death penalty for drug offences (2022-2025). We encourage those with data on drugs cases to contact us to further develop this database.

See here for further details on the DPRU’s Mapping Death Row projects. We are seeking funding to extend our mapping work across Africa and to ‘map’ women on death rows. Please get in touch if you can help with this work.

Socio-demographic profiles

Research into the socio-demographic make-up of death row populations can explore how intersecting variables such as gender, citizenship, ethnicity, religion and socio-economic background factors impact on people’s pathways into crime, experiences of justice and risks of being sentenced to death.

In January 2023, the DPP published Carolyn Hoyle and DPRU research student Lucrezia Rizzelli’s Living with a Death Sentence report, based on interviews with 671 death sentenced prisoners in Kenya, exploring prisoners’ socio-economic background and profiles, their pathways to, and motivations for, offending, as well as their experiences of criminal justice and imprisonment. In April 2023, the DPP published Carolyn Hoyle’s Dealing with Punishment report, based on interviews with 57 prisoners convicted of drug offences in Indonesia.

This socio-demographic research builds in part upon previous research on the mandatory death penalty in Trinidad and Tobago, conducted by the late Professor Roger Hood and Florence Seemungal.

Gender and discrimination

DPRU Research Associate Dr Lucy Harry’s doctoral research focused on cases of women sentenced to death for drug trafficking in Malaysia, drawing on empirical research in Kuala Lumpur, and she has published and presented widely on this topic, including in the journal Laws.

Recent DPRU research exploring other aspects of discrimination and disadvantage in capital punishment has explored the disproportionate risks of execution faced by Pakistani migrants in Saudi Arabia, featured in an article published in The British Journal of Criminology.

Barriers to abolition

There are two key perceived barriers to abolition in the countries we work in: deterrence and public opinion. The research we do with the DPP tackles both of these.

Deterrence theory

The claim that capital punishment can serve as a deterrent against serious criminal offending is often cited by governments as a justification for its retention, despite the lack of empirical evidence to substantiate this claim.

Building on pilot research contained in the Dealing with Punishment (2023) report, the DPRU and DPP are currently undertaking a wider programme of deterrence research as part of the ESRC research project on drugs and the death penalty, through interviews with drug offenders in prison who are sentenced to death, and those in the community involved in drug networks. As the project progresses, this fieldwork will be used to produce new empirical outputs analysing the purported deterrence effect of the retention of capital punishment for drug offences in Indonesia.

DPRU research student Lucrezia Rizzelli’s ongoing DPhil project (a collaborative ESRC studentship with the DPP) examines the motivations that lead people to engage in drug crimes and seeks to better understand the role that formal and informal punishments play in the decision-making process to challenge the applicability of general deterrence theory in relation to Indonesia in particular.

Public opinion research

Given that many retentionist jurisdictions justify their continued use of the death penalty by reference to the importance of democratic will for legitimate governance, our research seeks to explore what the public thinks about capital punishment.

Many general opinion polls, or surveys done on behalf of governments, are superficial, failing to measure the knowledge that opinions are based on, the strength of those opinions or the types of offences or offenders the public believes should be subject to capital punishment.

In recent years, the DPP has published new reports, conducted in collaboration with the DPRU, presenting research on public opinion on capital punishment in Indonesia and Kenya.

Opinion leaders research

Given the role of ‘opinion leaders’ in shaping discourse on the death penalty and in bringing about reforms, the DPRU have also undertaken a series of studies to understand the views of opinion leaders, or ‘elites'.

Recent DPRU/DPP publications have presented the views of opinion leaders from Indonesia, Kenya, Taiwan and Zimbabwe.

Abolitionist de facto status

The persistence of death penalty laws without executions in abolitionist de facto (ADF) states is another barrier to abolition and presents an important question: what prevents ADF states from reaching full abolition? This problem is one which Professor Roger Hood raised in his final publication, titledThe enigma of de facto abolition of capital punishment’. 

In August 2023, the DPRU and DPP began a new research project focusing on the concept of ADF status, thanks to a grant provided by the University of Oxford’s Public Policy Challenge Fund. Working with both academic experts and policymakers, the project team seeks to further develop the intellectual framework underpinning the ADF concept, and to produce a comprehensive dataset and interactive online map of ADF states worldwide. 

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