States Abolishing Death Penalty at Record Pace


Prisoner wearing a hood with a noose around his neck

iStockphoto/Thinkstock

The days of putting convicted criminals to death in the United States could be on the wane. Six states have gotten rid of capital punishment in the last six years, while more could be on the way.

Most recently, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley last week signed a law abolishing the death penalty in the state, while Delaware’s House of Representatives considered but put aside for now a bill that would do the same after it was passed by the state Senate.

Since 2007, New York, New Jersey, New Mexico, Illinois and Connecticut have all decided to no longer impose death sentences. Previously, no state had abolished capital punishment since 1984.

In total, 18 states plus Washington, D.C., currently have no death penalty.

 

Cruel and Unusual

The modern era of capital punishment began in 1976, after a four-year moratorium on executions following the 1972 Supreme Court decision Furman v. Georgia. The court ruled that the way capital punishment was imposed was a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment due to its inconsistency, among other reasons.

After the ruling, 37 states passed new death penalty laws to comply with the court’s reasoning. Since then, the court has ruled that executions of mentally retarded individuals, as well as defendants who committed a crime while under the age of 18 are unconstitutional.

In the meantime, there appears to be growing national sentiment against capital punishment. In spite of the heinous nature of the crimes he allegedly committed, only 24.5 percent of respondents in a recent Lawyers.com poll said they felt accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should be executed if convicted. On the legislative level, in addition to the Delaware bill, there are repeal efforts underway in Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Oregon and Washington, with a handful of other states that could follow.

“There’s certainly a strong trend recently,” says Richard Dieter, an attorney and executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “It’s not just the six states that have abolished it. Death sentences around the country have dropped precipitously, and executions have dropped as well.”

After hitting a peak of 98 in 1999, executions nationwide have declined to an average of 44 per year since 2007. There have been 10 executions so far this year as of May 1.

 

Inaccurate, Unfair, Expensive

Richard Dieter

The biggest driving force behind the move away from the death penalty is the specter of executing innocent people, Dieter asserts. “It’s the high ground of protecting innocent life by abolishing the death penalty,” he says. 

One hundred forty-two people on death row have been exonerated and released from prison since 1976. Just this Tuesday the Mississippi Supreme Court stepped in at the last minute to stay the execution of Willie Manning, who was convicted of a double murder in 1994 based on what is now considered discredited DNA evidence.

There is also a growing awareness that capital punishment is unfairly applied to minorities and people who can’t afford competent legal defense. Of the 1,330 executions carried out since 1976, a disproportionate amount of defendants are black, while an overwhelming percentage of cases involve white victims.

Finally, states are shying away from the high cost of moving a capital case through an extensive trial and appeals process. Numerous studies have shown staggeringly high costs of capital cases compared to murder cases where sentences of life in prison are sought.

Maryland’s governor agreed with all of the above, saying in a statement, “Maryland has effectively eliminated a policy that is proven not to work. Evidence shows that the death penalty is not a deterrent, it cannot be administered without racial bias, and it costs three times as much as life in prison without parole.”

 

Expedited Executions

Of course, not every state is on board with abolishing capital punishment. Florida is going in the opposite direction, attempting to speed up executions. The legislature this week passed a law requiring the governor to sign a death warrant within 30 days of state Supreme Court review, and the execution to be carried out within six months after that.

There are a number of other states whose culture would not lend itself toward abolition in the foreseeable future, short of a landmark court ruling that outlawed capital punishment entirely. “It could become so rare or unusual that it becomes outside the standards of decency as determined by the Supreme Court,” says Dieter.

Meanwhile states must grapple with the imperfections of the current capital punishment regime. “The justice system is not completely up to ferreting out the guilty from the innocent. It’s good but it’s not anything near perfect,” Dieter says. “The death penalty of course is irrevocable once it’s been carried out.”

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