The Four Biggest Death Penalty Trends in 2010

Execution witness viewing room (c) Scott Langley

The Death Penalty Information Center released its Year End Report today.  While there were no major turning points for the U.S. death penalty in 2010, the unworkable and degrading nature of capital punishment continued to reveal itself throughout the year.  There were lots of executions early – the first three executions took place on the same day, January 7 – but the pace slowed considerably, and the last two months of the year saw only two executions total.  There were 46 executions in all, in twelve different states.  Here are four major themes that emerged in 2010.

1. TEXAS AND OHIO LEAD THE (WRONG) WAY:  Texas, as usual, led the way with 17 executions (though this was significantly down from last year), while Ohio put 8 men to death.  Ohio’s execution proliferation caused one judge, Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul E. Pfeifer, who also happens to be one of the people who wrote Ohio’s death penalty law, to worry that his state was becoming too much like Texas, and to call for all death sentences in the state to get a second look.  He told the Columbus Dispatch: “There are probably few people in Ohio that are proud of the fact we are executing people at the same pace as Texas.”

No such second guessing was allowed in Texas, where a hearing looking into whether Cameron Todd Willingham might have been wrongfully executed and another hearing considering whether the danger of executing the innocent made Texas’ death penalty unconstitutional were both put on ice by state appeals courts. One or both of these important hearings could resume in 2011, but it is more likely that the Texas death penalty will continue to skate by without serious examination, despite the exonerations and wrongful executions we already know have happened.  (Silver lining: The Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty reports that there were just 8 death sentences in the Lone Star State in 2010, the lowest since capital punishment was re-instated in 1976.)

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Capital Punishment Slowing Down

The Death Penalty Information Center has released its Year End Report (pdf) for 2008.  It reveals clearly that the trend towards growing skepticism and diminishing (and more regional) use of capital punishment is continuing.  There were 37 executions in 2008, the lowest total since 1994, and there were only 111 death sentences passed.  For the second straight year, this was the lowest number of death sentences since capital punishment was reinstated since 1976.  (In the peak year, 1999, there were 98 executions and 284 death sentences.)

Four men were exonerated for America’s death rows this year, increasing already substantial public doubts that an imperfect system can, or should, carry out such an irreversible punishment. 

Executions this year were also almost exclusively a Southern phenomenon.  Depending on your definition of The South – are Kentucky and/or Oklahoma “southern” states? – this region accounted for all but 2, or 4, or 5 executions in 2008.  But the dramatic decline in death sentences is taking place in the South just as it is everywhere else  in the U.S. (except at the Federal level, where death sentences have doubled since outgoing President Bush took office). 

As the report of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (pdf) revealed last week, death sentences in that notoriously execution-friendly state also dropped to a post-reinstatement low, with only 9 sentences recorded in 2008.  Of course, Texas continues to execute at an alarming rate (accounting for almost half the executions this year), but to a certain extent execution numbers are a reflection of where the death penalty stood 10 or 12 years ago (the average length of time it takes for a death sentence to be carried out).  In another decade, we may see execution numbers in Texas and the rest of the South dropping to the levels they are currently at everywhere else, which is almost zero.