States are rethinking use of death sentences
Equality and costs concern officials
April 10, 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 nation, capital punishment is under siege.
Since the first of the year, states have acted on questions about the equity of capital punishment and made moves aimed at repealing the death penalty, slowing the practice or temporarily halting it because of rising costs.
In March, the Nebraska Legislature 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 the governor of Virginia, whose 96 executions since 1976 are exceeded only by Texas, vetoed five bills in March that would have expanded the use of capital punishment.
"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.
Resistance becomes practical
Skepticism toward and resistance to the death penalty have been building since the late 1990s, after investigations found a number of wrongful convictions. That and existing moral objections to capital punishment prompted some states to place a moratorium on executions, which have dropped from a yearly high of 98 in 1999 to 53 in 2006.
Recent developments have been influenced by pragmatism, 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 some 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."
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 appeal litigation.
O'Malley 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 crime."
About 3,350 convicts are on death row; more than a third of them -- 1,450 -- in California (660), Florida (397) and Texas (393).
Executions still have support
The U.S. legal system's delivery of death sentences has slowed dramatically. During the 1990s, courts would customarily issue about 300 death sentences annually. Those numbers have plummeted, to 128 in 2005 and 102 last year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington, D.C.-based group that lobbies against capital punishment.
Efforts to repeal or otherwise rethink the death penalty don't suggest the days of capital punishment in the United States are necessarily numbered. Thirty-seven states have the death penalty; 12 (including Michigan) don't, and New York's was declared unconstitutional in 2004.
The Montana Senate approved the abolition of the death penalty this year, but 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, opinion polls consistently show support for the death penalty. Last fall, 56% of Wisconsin voters 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 hesitance."