Questions about justice, expense undermining political support for capital punishment.
About once a week, a convicted murderer is put to death in a state penitentiary, most often in Texas, where all but one of this year’s 12 executions have occurred.
But around the U.S., capital punishment is under siege. Since the first of the year, individual states have acted on long-festering questions about the equity of capital punishment and made bold moves aimed at repealing the death penalty, slowing the practice or temporarily halting it because of rising costs.
The Nebraska Legislature last month came within one vote of repealing its death penalty law. The new governor of Maryland called for the outright repeal of capital punishment. Most of Georgia’s 72 capital cases have been stopped because the state’s public defender system has run out of money. New Jersey lawmakers are drafting a bill to repeal that state’s death penalty. And last month the governor of Virginia, a state whose 96 executions since 1976 are exceeded only by those in Texas, vetoed five bills that would have expanded the use of capital punishment.
“I do not believe that further expansion of the death penalty is necessary to protect human life or provide for public safety needs,” said Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine, an opponent of capital punishment.
Skepticism toward and resistance to the death penalty have been building since the late 1990s, after investigations uncovered a troubling number of wrongful convictions. That and existing moral objections to capital punishment prompted some states, led in 2000 by Illinois and then-Gov. George Ryan, to place a moratorium on executions, which have dropped from a yearly high of 98 nationwide in 1999 to 53 in 2006.
Recent developments in states have been influenced by pragmatism, with much of it rooted in concerns over the costs of lengthy appeals, which in some cases exceed two decades.
Six pending appeals of death penalty cases in Ohio, for instance, where 191 people are on Death Row, include cases that go back to 1984.
Pointing to multimillion-dollar costs from appeals, Frank Zimring, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law, said: “People are starting to talk about cost and notice the marginality of the death penalty.”
Those numbers have plummeted in the last seven years, to 128 in 2005 and 102 last year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group that lobbies against capital punishment.
Efforts to repeal or otherwise rethink the death penalty do not suggest that the days of capital punishment in the U.S. are necessarily numbered. (Thirty-seven states have the death penalty; 12 do not, and New York’s was declared unconstitutional in 2004.)
While the Montana Senate approved the abolition of the death penalty this year, a House committee defeated the measure. In New Mexico, the House approved a repeal, but a Senate committee said no. In Maryland, a legislative committee rejected O’Malley’s plea to replace the death penalty with life without parole.
Furthermore, public opinion polls consistently indicate majority support for the death penalty. Fifty-six percent of Wisconsin voters last fall approved an advisory referendum to reimpose the death penalty in the state, which recorded its last execution more than 150 years ago.
“I don’t think the country is about to get rid of the death penalty,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “But overall, the trend shows some rethinking and hesitance.”
“Because of flaws in the system and economics, everything is now being given a fresh look,” Dieter said.
Support for life imprisonment without the prospect of parole has been growing, polls indicate, and that, coupled with questions about the application of capital punishment and concerns about mounting costs, has undermined political support for the death penalty.