Saturday, 7 April 2007
Resistance to death penalty growing
Questions about justice, expense undermining political support for
By Tim Jones
Tribune national correspondent
April 8, 2007
About once a week, a convicted murderer is put to death in a state
penitentiary, most often in Texas, where all but one of this year's
12 executions have occurred.
But around the U.S., capital punishment is under siege. Since the
first of the year, individual states have acted on long-festering
questions about the equity of capital punishment and made bold moves
aimed at repealing the death penalty, slowing the practice or
temporarily halting it because of rising costs.
The Nebraska Legislature last month came within one vote of repealing
its death penalty law. The new governor of Maryland called for the
outright repeal of capital punishment. Most of Georgia's 72 capital
cases have been stopped because the state's public defender system
has run out of money. New Jersey lawmakers are drafting a bill to
repeal that state's death penalty. And last month the governor of
Virginia, a state whose 96 executions since 1976 are exceeded only by
those in Texas, vetoed five bills that would have expanded the use of
"I do not believe that further expansion of the death penalty is
necessary to protect human life or provide for public safety needs,"
said Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine, an opponent of capital punishment.
Skepticism toward and resistance to the death penalty have been
building since the late 1990s, after investigations uncovered a
troubling number of wrongful convictions. That and existing moral
objections to capital punishment prompted some states, led in 2000 by
Illinois and then-Gov. George Ryan, to place a moratorium on
executions, which have dropped from a yearly high of 98 nationwide in
1999 to 53 in 2006.
Recent developments in states have been influenced by pragmatism,
with much of it rooted in concerns over the costs of lengthy appeals,
which in some cases exceed two decades.
Six pending appeals of death penalty cases in Ohio, for instance,
where 191 people are on Death Row, include cases that go back to 1984.
Pointing to multimillion-dollar costs from appeals, Frank Zimring, a
professor at the University of California, Berkeley's Boalt Hall
School of Law, said: "People are starting to talk about cost and
notice the marginality of the death penalty."
$22.4 million in litigation
Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley noted that 56 people have been
sentenced to death in his state since 1978, and taxpayers have spent
about $22.4 million beyond the cost of imprisonment on appeals
O'Malley, a Democrat, said in February that if the state were to
replace the death penalty with life without parole, "that $22.4
million could pay for 500 additional police officers or provide drug
treatment for 10,000 of our addicted neighbors. Unlike the death
penalty, these are investments that save lives and prevent violent
There are about 3,350 convicts on Death Row, and more than one-third
of them—1,450—reside in penal institutions in California (660),
Florida (397) and Texas (393).
The legal system's delivery of death sentences has dramatically
slowed. During the 1990s U.S. courts would customarily issue about
300 death sentences annually.
Those numbers have plummeted in the last seven years, to 128 in 2005
and 102 last year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center,
a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group that lobbies against capital
It's not the end
Efforts to repeal or otherwise rethink the death penalty do not
suggest that the days of capital punishment in the U.S. are
necessarily numbered. (Thirty-seven states have the death penalty; 12
do not, and New York's was declared unconstitutional in 2004.)
While the Montana Senate approved the abolition of the death penalty
this year, a House committee defeated the measure. In New Mexico, the
House approved a repeal, but a Senate committee said no. In Maryland,
a legislative committee rejected O'Malley's plea to replace the death
penalty with life without parole.
Furthermore, public opinion polls consistently show majority support
for the death penalty. Fifty-six percent of Wisconsin voters last
fall approved an advisory referendum to reimpose the death penalty in
the state, which recorded its last execution more than 150 years ago.
"I don't think the country is about to get rid of the death penalty,"
said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty
Information Center. "But overall, the trend shows some rethinking and
"Because of flaws in the system and economics, everything is now
being given a fresh look," Dieter said.
Support for life imprisonment without the prospect of parole has been
growing, polls show, and that, coupled with questions about the
application of capital punishment and concerns about mounting costs,
has undermined political support for the death penalty.
Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland is an ordained minister and former prison
psychologist who worked on Ohio's Death Row. Strickland, a Democrat,
has long been an advocate of the death penalty but now defines
himself as a "supporter with certain reservations."
"I used to think before I worked in prisons that although innocent
people could be convicted that it was very highly unlikely that
someone [innocent] would be on Death Row," said Strickland, who
delayed the scheduled executions of three inmates shortly after
taking office in January.
"There is convincing evidence that individuals have been wrongly
convicted," he said.
One of Strickland's predecessors, Michael DiSalle, in office from
1959 to 1963, personally investigated the cases of inmates on Ohio's
Death Row while he was governor.
"The possibility of an irrevocable error was so vivid to me that on
several occasions I made last-minute visits to the grim, antiquated
Ohio State Penitentiary, not far from downtown Columbus, across the
street from the casket factory, for a final interview with the
condemned man," DiSalle wrote in his 1965 book "The Power of Life or
Eleven states have placed moratoriums on executions because of
questions about the humanity of the lethal injection process, the
most popular form of execution. Nebraska, which is the only state to
mandate the use of the electric chair, may revisit the death penalty
issue later this spring, with consideration of a bill allowing for
life imprisonment without parole, providing the inmate can be
imprisoned without endangering other inmates.
"I don't know what's going to happen," said Nebraska state Sen. Ernie
Chambers, a longtime opponent of capital punishment. "But there's a
lot less fear on the part of senators to consider abolishing the
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune