Stay of executions
After a generation of recklessly expanding the death penalty, the pendulum
is swinging back.
By Andrew Cohen, CBS News' chief legal analyst.
Los Angeles Times, February 3, 2007
Lurking largely beneath the radar the last few weeks, while media coverage
has focused on the perjury and obstruction-
"Scooter" Libby and the Bush administration'
surveillance, were a series of important legal and political developments in
the increasingly muddled world of capital punishment in the United States.
Nearly 13 years after U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun famously
promised that he would no "longer tinker with the machinery of death,"
judges and politicians are tinkering -- and doing so in ever emboldened
ways. From Jan. 19 through Jan. 26, reports the Death Penalty Information
Center, eight executions were stayed in North Carolina, Ohio and Texas --
with four more postponed Thursday in Tennessee.
In North Carolina, a state judge blocked three executions after death row
inmates challenged the state's lethal injection procedures. In Ohio, three
more executions were stayed pending more thorough clemency reviews. Two
Texas capital cases were halted, one by a state judge and one by the U.S.
And in California, a federal trial judge in December declared
unconstitutional the state's method of lethal injection. Even the
conservative U.S. Supreme Court, which in large measure has the final say on
whether and to what extent capital punishment may be used, has begun to pay
more attention to death penalty procedures. The justices in January heard
three capital cases out of Texas and agreed to hear another out of
Washington state before the end of the term.
But it's not just the judiciary that gummed up the machinery of death last
month. In Maryland, legislators proposed a measure that would ban capital
punishment in the state, a bill Gov. Martin O'Malley said he would sign into
law. In the Ohio cases, Gov. Ted Strickland, new to his post, declared that
he has "serious questions" about capital punishment, and a former
corrections director who oversaw executions in the Buckeye State said he
favors the end of capital punishment. In New Jersey, a state commission
recommended the abolition of the death penalty in that state too. And it
was Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen on Thursday who declared a 90-day
moratorium on executions, halting the four in that state.
None of this means the end of capital punishment is near. A majority of
Americans still support capital punishment in one form or another (and there
are still states, mostly in the South and the West, where juries are still
handing down death sentences for murder). But there is a clear, marked
trend toward limiting the circumstances in which capital punishment is
applied and the manner in which executions are performed. As the Death
Penalty Information Center notes, "The number of death sentences per year
has dropped dramatically since 1999."
In some cases, the architects of this national change are loyal to capital
punishment and only want to protect it from substantive challenge by firming
up the fairness in its procedures (which, trust me, needing firming up).
These folks argue -- and with good reason if Supreme Court precedent is any
guide -- that if more isn't done to ensure that death sentences are fairly
meted out, they will one day be halted. In other cases, it is the opponents
of capital punishment who have been able to muster support for their cause
by using compelling statistics that show the failure of the death penalty as
In part, the refined attitudes about the death penalty also have come about
because of advances in technology. New DNA testing and, just as important,
a newfound willingness by judges and prosecutors to revisit old capital
cases have led to many well-publicized exonerations of death row inmates,
each one cutting into the core of confidence that people have about the
reliability and accuracy of capital punishment. Since 1973, reports the
Death Penalty Information Center, at least 120 people on death row have been
exonerated for one reason or another.
Where is capital punishment likely to be at the end of this mini-upheaval?
I have no idea. But I am willing to offer an educated guess: The death
penalty will exist in fewer states than it does now. And in those states
where it still exists, capital procedures, from jury selection through
lethal injection, will be subject to a much more rigorous judicial review.
Politicians may be more willing to ensure that capital defendants get decent
representation at trial, and when they do not, judges may be more willing to
toss tainted convictions. And DNA, the latest "great equalizer," will loom
in the background of every capital case that does not otherwise involve
After a generation of often reckless expansion of the death penalty, the
pendulum is starting to swing back. The change didn't start in January
2007. But it sure looks like it is picking up the pace