Death Penalty In 2012: Seven Significant Signs

A final tally of the Connecticut legislature's  vote to abolish the death penalty.

A final tally of the Connecticut legislature’s vote to abolish the death penalty.

By this time at the end of the year, states have generally stopped killing their prisoners. This break from executions is a good thing, and perhaps this year it will give us a chance to reflect on the larger question of our violent culture, and on how perhaps we can start focusing on preventing terrible crimes rather than simply responding with more violence.

The end of the year is also a time for looking back. Fortunately, this is also the time of year when the Death Penalty Information Center releases its year-end report, which provides a lot of good data. This year’s version reveals the geographically arbitrary (and increasingly isolated) nature of capital punishment in the U.S. In 2012, death sentences and executions maintained their historically low levels, and only nine states actually carried out an execution.  In fact, the majority of U.S. states have not carried out an execution in the last five years. Just four states were responsible for around three-fourths of the country’s executions, and four states issued about two thirds of U.S. death sentences.

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10 Reasons Death Penalty Abolition is Coming

Today is the 10th World Day Against the Death Penalty, an annual October 10 event created by the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty of which Amnesty International is a founding member. Since that first World Day on Oct. 10, 2003, executions are on the wane both here in the U.S. and around the world.

Here are 10 reasons to celebrate 10 years of progress this World Day:

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The Death Penalty In 2011: Three Things You Should Know

noose death penaltyEvery year around this time, Amnesty International releases its annual survey of capital punishment worldwide.

As in previous years, the report – Death Sentences and Execution 2011 – shows that support for executions continued to diminish, and that the U.S. is in the wrong company but moving in the right direction. There are three main takeaways from this years report.

1. Globally, the use of the death penalty remained in decline.  At the end of 2011 there were 140 countries considered abolitionist in law or practice (it’s now 141 with the addition of Mongolia), while only 20 countries were known to have put prisoners to death.  Only in the tumultuous Middle East was there an increase in executions.

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Death Penalty Downward Spiral Continues

Exonerated Gary Drinkard death penalty

Gary Drinkard was on death row in Alabama for 6 years before he was exonerated. © Scott Langley

As we approach the end of another year, the time for annual reports is at hand.  For the death penalty, this means the yearly report from the Death Penalty Information Center, as well as the year-end report from the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.   Both reports show that in 2011 the downward trends we have been observing for several years in the United States continued or even accelerated.

Texas carried out its lowest number of executions (13) since 1996.  Nationwide, the 43 executions carried out represented about half the number that were put to death in the year 2000, and U.S. death sentences dropped well below 100 for the first time since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976.

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U.S. Public Turning Away From Death Penalty?

In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned all U.S. death penalty laws, declaring them unconstitutional.  Public support for capital punishment was low back then, but by 1976, the death penalty had made a comeback and, 1,200+ executions later, here we are.

Yet now public support for the death penalty is as low as it’s been since 1972, and the New York Times this weekend made the case that it may really be on its way out.  The number of death sentences and executions annually has plummeted over the past decade, and 24 of the 50 states have either abolished capital punishment or not carried out an execution in 12 years or more. SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

9 Out of 10 Counties, Zero Death Sentences Since 2004

What makes a punishment “unusual?” The 8th Amendment to the Constitution bans “cruel and unusual” punishments, and the Supreme Court in recent years has suggested that a punishment becomes unusual when few states have it in their laws, or, if laws are still on the books, when few jurisdictions choose to actually use the punishment

So what do we make of the fact that since 2004, only 10% of US counties have actually passed a death sentence?  That’s the bottom line of a new set of maps (presented on the Second Class Justice blog) which illustrate US death sentences by county from the years 2004-2009.  Counties are where US death sentencing happens (aside from federal death sentences).  If 9 out of 10 counties have not issued a death sentence in 5 years, does that make the death penalty unusual?

One of the reasons the high Court struck down capital punishment as “cruel and unusual” back in 1972 was its inconsistent and arbitrary application.  “…[C]ruel and unusual in the same way that being struck by lightning is cruel and unusual,” the Court said.  In reinstating the death penalty, the Court insisted that death sentences be limited to the “worst of the worst.”  But that hasn’t happened.  Instead, death sentences, like real estate, are all about location, location, location.

And the maps reveal that the prime real estate for death sentences is no longer in Texas or other parts of the Old South.  In recent years, the most enthusiastic death sentencing counties have been further west, in California and Arizona.  (These same states, incidentally, are currently embroiled in a controversy over whether or not they acquired execution drugs illegally.)

10 Reasons to Abolish the Death Penalty

This blog post is brought to you by the number 10.  It was after 10 pm last night when Georgia put Brandon Rhode to death, less than a week after rushing madly to save his life after his failed suicide attempt.

October 10th, 2010 (10-10-10) will be World Day Against the Death Penalty, and the focus this year is on the USA.  There has never been a more important or better time to get involved in ending capital punishment in the USA, and here are 10 reasons why:

1) The death penalty is absurd and cruel.  The ridiculous spectacle of putting a man to death just days after saving his life, is a perfect illustration of that.

2) The death penalty is degrading.  It turns states into prescription drug abusers, killing prisoners with drugs like sodium thiopental that manufacturers are on record as stating should only be used to healing purposes.

3) High profile cases, often with racial undertones, create political pressures that can lead to police and prosecutor misconduct.  Reggie Clemons was convicted as an accomplice in the murder of two white women in St. Louis.  Four federal judges have agreed that the prosecutor’s conduct was “abusive and boorish,” and Clemons alleges police brutality during his questioning. Witnesses attest to Clemons’ face being swollen after his interrogation.

4) It is not limited to the “worst of the worst”.  A recent example: the execution of Teresa Lewis in Virginia on September 23; she was put to death as the “mastermind” of a crime despite her 72 IQ, and despite the fact that the men who actually carried out the crime did not get the death penalty.

5) The death penalty is not limited to cases where there is no doubt about guilt.  Convicted by flimsy witness testimony, and unable to exonerate himself with those same witnesses, Troy Davis remains on death row despite serious doubts about his guilt.  His birthday is on October 9!

6) The times are changing.  In Ohio, Governor Ted Strickland granted clemency in the case of Kevin Keith, despite his belief that Keith was probably guilty, because some doubt remained.

7) In Texas, a hearing on whether Cameron Todd Willingham was wrongfully executed will take place October 6-7.  Skepticism about the application of the death penalty continues to build in the Lone Star State.

8) Death sentences continue to drop.  Last year barely over 100 were sentenced to death , compared to an average of close to 300 in the 1990s.

9) One-by-one, states are abandoning capital punishment, particularly in odd numbered years. (New Jersey in 2007, New Mexico in 2009).  In the coming year (2011), many more states will have serious debates and possibly votes on abolition

10) There is so much that can be done for World Day Against the Death Penalty, from taking action on specific cases, to joining your local state-based coalition’s efforts to abolish the death penalty.

The death penalty abolition movement is growing, and some progress is being made, but there is a lot of work yet to be done.  This World Day is the perfect time to get started.

With Death Sentences Down, Things Are Looking Up in Texas

Source: Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty

Source: Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty

It’s always nice to hear good news about the decline of the death penalty, and even nicer when that news is coming out of Texas. According to a recent report, while Texas officials continue to carry out executions at a high rate, the number of Texas juries that opt for the death penalty has dropped remarkably in recent years. In 1999, Texas sentenced 48 prisoners to death, but over the last decade that number has plummeted; so far in 2009, only 9 death sentences have been meted out. The drop has come about partly because a life-without-parole option has reassured juries that convicts will never be released, partly because in a troubled economy the sky-high financial costs of the death penalty are particularly daunting, and mostly because of what Texas state Senator Eddie Lucio Jr.,  calls “a growing lack of belief that our system is fair.”

Well-publicized exonerations, some based on irrefutable DNA evidence, have woken many Texans up to the reality that the legal system is often quite flawed, and more and more jurors are unwilling to risk being complicit in the execution of an innocent person. Tarrant County’s lead criminal prosecutor, Alan Levy, has said that said groups like the Innocence Project have done an excellent job of raising the profile of innocent convicts, and have made sure that the topic of wrongful conviction (and potential wrongful execution) is not forgotten.

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