Death Penalty on Decline in United States

Report Shows Historic Low

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By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, JAN. 20, 2011 ( For the first time since capital punishment was reintroduced in the United States in 1976 the annual number of new death sentences fell below 100 last year. Shortly before the end of the year the Death Penalty Information Center released «The Death Penalty in 2011: Year End Report.»

New death sentences dropped to 78 in 2011. This compares with the high point in 1996, which saw 315 capital punishment sentences. The decline started in the late 90s, which had seen an average of about 300 annual sentences. Since then the number has steadily dropped.

The number of executions also declined, down to 43, three fewer than the previous year.

Only 13 states carried out executions in 2011, 74% of which were in the South, the report pointed out. Only eight states, however, carried out more than one execution. As usual Texas was the state with most executions, with 13. Even so the report pointed out that this number is a 46% decrease from 2009, when there were 24 executions, and also a drop from 2010, when there were 17 executions.

Since 1976 out of the overall number of 1,277 executions Texas has accounted for no less than 477, which is 37% of the total. In 2011, nevertheless, there were only eight new death sentences.

In January, the Illinois legislature voted to repeal the death penalty. In its place is the option of a sentence for life without parole. This made Illinois the fourth state in as many years to abolish capital punishment.

One of the reasons behind the change in Illinois was the cost of the death sentence. A state commission found that $100 million had been spent on assisting counties with death penalty prosecutions over the past seven years.

«The evidence presented to me by former prosecutors and judges with decades of experience in the criminal justice system has convinced me that it is impossible to devise a system that is consistent, that is free of discrimination on the basis of race, geography or economic circumstance, and that always gets it right,» said Governor Pat Quinn as he signed the bill abolishing the death penalty.

This brings down to 34 the number of states that have the death penalty.

As well, in Oregon in November, Governor John Kitzhaber halted a pending execution and declared that no additional executions would occur during his tenure.

Among other news at the state level, in Ohio, the Chief Judge of the state’s Supreme Court convened a 21-person commission to study the problems with the death penalty. Meanwhile, the report said that in Pennsylvania a justice of the Supreme Court described the appellate work being done in many capital cases as marked by «disarray and inconsistencies» and called «for immediate reform.»


Support for the death penalty also continued to decline. According to the report an annual Gallup Poll on the death penalty revealed that last year only 61% of people were in favor of the death penalty, the lowest level recorded in recent decades.

The report also observed that the application of death penalty sentences continues to be very arbitrary. In 1972 the Supreme Court stopped the use of the death penalty because it considered it was being applied in an unpredictable and arbitrary way.

Following changes to the laws in some states the Supreme Court allowed the use of the death penalty in 1976. Nonetheless, according to the Death Penalty Information Center death sentences continue to be applied in a very inconsistent fashion.

This accusation was reinforced by a study recently carried out by Professor John Donohue of Stanford Law School. He examined the death penalty sentences handed out from 1973 to 2007 in the state of Connecticut.

In its summary of his findings on Jan. 12 the Death Penalty Information Center reported that Donohue concluded that «the state’s record of handling death-eligible cases represents a chaotic and unsound criminal justice policy that serves neither deterrence nor retribution.»

Donohue found that «arbitrariness and discrimination are defining features of the state’s capital punishment regime.»

According to his study there is no meaningful difference between death-eligible murders in which prosecutors pursue the death penalty and those in which prosecutors do not.

Racial factors also heavily influence the likelihood of receiving a death sentence. Defendants who belong to a racial minority that commit death-eligible murders of white victims are six times more likely to receive a death sentence as minority defendants who commit murders of minorities, Donohue found.

Meanwhile, early news in 2012 suggests that the trend away from the death penalty will continue. On Monday, the Death Penalty Information Center reported that the Pennsylvania Senate recently passed a resolution to initiate a study of the death penalty. It will look at issues such as fairness, equality and costs of capital punishment.

Only three people have been executed since Pennsylvania reinstated the death penalty in 1978, but there are more than 200 prisoners on death row.

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