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.


Texas' Reluctant Jurors

Today, Time wonders if Texas is “Changing its Mind About the Death Penalty.” There is ample evidence that something is happening.  According to the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (TCADP) year-end report, there were only 11 death sentences in the Lone Star state in 2008, and a grand total of Zero in Harris County (which by itself is responsible for over 100 executions in the last 26 years). 

To a certain extent, this apparent shift in attitude (at least in the jury room) mirrors broader national (and even international) trends, but the idea of Texans going along with national trends on the death penalty is itself noteworthy, if only because it conflicts with Texas’ relentlessly self-promoted stereotype that it is like “a whole ‘nother country”.

Texas, of course, is not a “‘nother country”, and Texans are quite reasonably experiencing the same misgivings about capital punishment as everyone else.   With 130 exonerations from death row nationally, the most recent one being Michael Blair in Texas, jurors are understandably reluctant to hand down such an irreversible punishment.  And with life without parole as an alternative, they don’t feel they have to.

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.