The Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) released it’s annual report today, DPIC’s Year End Report: Death Sentences Plunge to Historic Lows.
On December 15, the Death Penalty Information Center released its latest report, “The Death Penalty in 2011: Year End Report,” on statistics and trends in capital punishment in the past year. The report noted that new death sentences dropped to 78 in 2011, marking the first time since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976 that the country has produced less than 100 death sentences in a year. It represents a 75% decline since 1996, when there were 315 new death sentences. California, which has the country’s largest death row, saw its death sentences drop by more than half this year – 10 compared with 29 in 2010. Only 13 states carried out executions in 2011, 74% of which were in the South. Only 8 states carried out more than one execution. Texas led the country with 13 executions, but that number represents a 46% decrease from 2009, when there were 24 executions. “This year, the use of the death penalty continued to decline by almost every measure,” said Richard Dieter, DPIC’s Executive Director and the report’s author. “Executions, death sentences, public support, the number of states with the death penalty all dropped from previous years. Whether it’s concerns about unfairness, executing the innocent, the high costs of the death penalty, or the general feeling that the government just can’t get it right, Americans moved further away from capital punishment in 2011.”
Here’s more on the report from The Atlantic, The Looming Death of the Death Penalty.
The death penalty experiment is failing yet again. Undermined by overzealous prosecutors, a hobby-horse for incurious politicians, too often taken unseriously by jurors and witnesses, capital punishment in America has devolved since 1976 into a costly, inaccurate, racially biased, and unseemly proposition.
We clearly can’t do it right, and more people are wondering whether we should continue doing it at all. The facts and figures of 2011 soberly reflect the nation’s evolving perceptions of the problems inherent in the justice system’s ultimate punishment. For decades, “death is different” has been the courtroom mantra of capital cases. But now, and with increasing clarity, “death is different” is becoming a discernible trend all across the country.
Take the big death penalty stories of 2011. They all buttress the figures offered by the DPIC. For example, there was the dramatic September execution in Georgia of Troy Davis, which educated millions of people about the fallibility of eyewitness testimony in criminal cases. Reasonable people have reasonably disagreed about whether justice was served in the case, but one essential fact has always jumped out at me. After a trial that included at least 40 witnesses, it took Davis’ jury less than two hours to convict him of murder. That’s just not good enough.
Nor was the year’s ghastly search by officials in several states for a key ingredient of the drug cocktail used in lethal injections. These executioners were forced to scramble like thievesfor the drug sodium thiopental when its American manufacturer, Hospira, stopped making the product. What does it say about a state — and a society — that has to buy its lethal drugs on the sly through a private middleman, as Nebraska evidently did recently? It sends the same ghoulish message to the nation — and to the world — that the audience at a Republican debate in September sent when it wildly cheered the record rate of executions in Texas.
Following those cheers, Texas Gov. Rick Perry chillingly told debate moderator Brian Williams that night that he “never struggled” with the idea that one of the men executed during his tenure was innocent. This says more about Perry, of course, than it does about the Texas’ capital punishment regime, which has been repeatedly criticized even by the conservative United States Supreme Court. It says the gulf between the cavalier attitude of officials like Perry and the injustice often foisted upon capital convicts is large and growing larger.
The interesting thing is that the reason the death penalty is struggling is not because of a mass movement and protests against the it. The reason for it’s struggle is because of the utter disaster the criminal justice system has become in our country. Just like the Michael Morton case, and the problems the criminal justice system is facing here in Williamson County, has changed the conversation locally.
“I thank God this wasn’t a capital case,”
-Michael Morton, when freed, after spending 25 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. [LINK]
The conversation has changed. It’ not about whether the death penalty is right or wrong. It about whether we, the “state” and the taxpayers, are putting innocent people in jail and killing them. No one knows for sure anymore if justice is being served when someone is put to death. If the death penalty goes away it will be because of the flaws in the criminal justice system, not because of the moral outrage.