Is the tide turning on the death penalty?
By Alan Maass | February 9, 2007 | Page 7
IS AMERICA’S execution system grinding to a halt? Following a series of court rulings and decisions by governors, the death penalty is on hold or not used in more than half of U.S. states--which together account for nearly two-thirds of the population.
The total number of executions in the U.S. dropped again last year to 53, a decline of almost 50 percent in the past seven years since the high point of the 1990s surge in executions. The number of death sentences imposed by juries also fell last year, to the lowest level since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.
Capital punishment has been under scrutiny throughout the decade, but the issue is back at center stage right now--chiefly because of questioning of the lethal injection procedure used in 37 of the 38 states that have the death penalty. Long considered a swift and humane method of execution, evidence has come to light showing that lethal injection may be little more than state-sanctioned torture.
On the same day in December, California and Florida, which have the largest and third-largest death rows respectively, halted death sentences being carried out--as a result of botched executions in both states.
The effective moratoriums related to lethal injection aren’t permanent. The Florida halt on executions, for example, could be reversed by the new governor this month or next. And Texas, the capital of the U.S. death machine, isn’t slowing its murder spree.
Nevertheless, the extent of recent legislative developments around the death penalty shows how far the tide has turned.
In New Jersey, an independent commission supported abolishing the death penalty because of “increasing evidence that the death penalty is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency,” according to the commission report. The state legislature is expected to pass abolition legislation in the coming months, and Gov. Jon Corzine has said he will sign it.
In Maryland, where executions were halted in December because of a lack of public review of the lethal injection procedure, the new governor, Martin O’Malley, has said he, too, will sign a bill abolishing the death penalty if the legislature passes one.
In Illinois, state Sen. Mattie Hunter will unveil legislation to abolish the death penalty later this month. Illinois has had a moratorium on all executions, declared in January 2000 by former Gov. George Ryan. Three years later, Ryan cleared the state’s death row, granting pardons to four prisoners who were shown to be innocent, and commuting the death sentences of every other prisoner.
Other states ranging from Kansas and Nebraska to New Mexico and South Dakota are considering legislation to stop the death penalty. Though these bills are less certain of passage, they have advanced much further in the legislative process than previously, when they typically stalled in committee, without being debated.
“The changes that have taken place in just the last few months are astonishing,” says Marlene Martin, national director of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. “The number of abolition and moratorium bills being put forward right now is I’m sure the most ever since reinstatement.
“That’s not only because lethal injection is raising questions, but more generally the unraveling of the death penalty system--because of innocent people walking off death row, because of activists exposing the flaws of the system, because of continued pressure inside and outside the courtroom.
“Now, judges are literally scrambling to come up with a humane way to kill someone. But doctors and anesthesiologists are standing up and refusing to be part of the process. The problems around lethal injection are snowballing, and it’s going to be hard for them to ‘fix’ the system. They will try. But it would be a mistake if abolitionists were to see lethal injection as a technicality that can be easily pushed aside.
“The courts and the politicians are under pressure to sustain the legitimacy of the criminal justice system. Innocent people walking off death row and revelations of the barbarism and incompetence that takes place in the death chamber are giving the whole system a black eye. This is a crack in the system that activists can push open--and say that no matter how you mix the chemicals, there’s no right way to do the wrong thing. We have to push forward on every front right now.”