Resistance to death penalty growing

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.

Death Penalty

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Human Rights Watch campaign against the death penalty: The Death Penalty in the United States of America

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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.”

$22.4 million in litigation

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley noted that 56 people have been sentenced to death in his state since 1978, and taxpayers have spent about $22.4 million beyond the cost of imprisonment on appeals litigation.

O’Malley, a Democrat, said in February that if the state were to replace the death penalty with life without parole, “that $22.4 million could pay for 500 additional police officers or provide drug treatment for 10,000 of our addicted neighbors. Unlike the death penalty, these are investments that save lives and prevent violent crime.”

There are about 3,350 convicts on Death Row, and more than one-third of them—1,450—reside in penal institutions in California (660), Florida (397) and Texas (393).

The legal system’s delivery of death sentences has dramatically slowed. During the 1990s the nation’s courts would customarily issue about 300 death sentences annually.

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.

‘Certain reservations’

Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland is an ordained minister and former prison psychologist who worked on Ohio’s Death Row. Strickland, a Democrat, has long been an advocate of the death penalty but now defines himself as a “supporter with certain reservations.”

“I used to think before I worked in prisons that although innocent people could be convicted that it was very highly unlikely that someone [innocent] would be on Death Row,” said Strickland, who delayed the scheduled executions of three inmates shortly after taking office in January.

“There is convincing evidence that individuals have been wrongly convicted,” he said.

One of Strickland’s predecessors, Michael DiSalle, in office from 1959 to 1963, personally investigated the cases of inmates on Ohio’s Death Row while he was governor.

“The possibility of an irrevocable error was so vivid to me that on several occasions I made last-minute visits to the grim, antiquated Ohio State Penitentiary, not far from downtown Columbus, across the street from the casket factory, for a final interview with the condemned man,” DiSalle wrote in his 1965 book “The Power of Life or Death.”

Eleven states have placed moratoriums on executions because of questions about the humanity of the lethal injection process, the most popular form of execution. Nebraska, which is the only state to mandate the use of the electric chair, may revisit the death penalty issue later this spring, with consideration of a bill allowing for life imprisonment without parole, providing the inmate can be imprisoned without endangering other inmates.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Nebraska state Sen. Ernie Chambers, a longtime opponent of capital punishment. “But there’s a lot less fear on the part of senators to consider abolishing the death penalty.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday April 10, 2007.
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