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.


Poll Shows More People in US Question Morality of Death Penalty

stop the execution death penalty protesters

Protesters try to stop an execution in Texas © Scott Langley

This May, a Gallup poll showed that only 58% of respondents find the death penalty morally acceptable, a 7% drop from last year and the lowest number since the morality question was first asked in 2001.

This follows a 2010 poll from the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) that showed, when given choices, two-thirds support alternatives to the death penalty.  Gallup’s non-morality based poll on the death penalty in 2011, which didn’t offer alternatives, still showed the lowest support for capital punishment since 1972.  That poll was conducted soon after the controversial September 21st execution of Troy Davis despite serious doubts about his guilt.

The question of innocence

Is the drop in belief in the morality of the death penalty related to a growing belief that the innocent can be executed?  There have been 140 people exonerated from U.S. death row since 1973.


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

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.)


Most Voters Prefer Alternatives to the Death Penalty

new poll demonstrates that U.S. voters don’t consider the capital punishment a wise use of their tax dollars.  It also finds that most U.S. voters don’t consider the death penalty the most appropriate punishment for murder

1,500 registered voters were surveyed for this comprehensive study of public attitudes towards the death penalty, released today by the Death Penalty Information Center.  In the poll, 61% of the voters preferred alternatives to the death penalty as the more appropriate punishments for murder.  (39% favored life without parole plus restitution for the victim’s family, 13% just life without parole, and 9% life with the possibility of parole.)

When asked about their personal budget priorities, the list was long, and the death penalty was at the bottom of it.  More pressing priorities included: emergency services, creating jobs, police and crime prevention, schools and libraries, public health care services, and roads and transportation.

Polls which only ask whether the public is for or against the death penalty usually find a majority in support of capital punishment; but it is clear that when real world alternatives are included – alternative punishments and alternative uses of government resources – that support collapses.

The poll also reveals that most voters (62%) either don’t care how their representatives vote on the death penalty, or would likely support a legislator who voted to end capital punishment in their state. So legislators now considering death penalty abolition in Illinois, and those elected officials in several other states who will be in the same boat in 2011, can take heart and safely vote to end executions.