Has the worm turned?
According to Ashby Jones of the Wall Street Journal, the number of new death sentences handed down in the United States is at its lowest level in 35 years. In 2011, there were 78 death sentences pronounced, a decrease of 30% from 2010, and a steep decline from the 224 death sentences handed down in 2000.
There were 43 executions carried out in the US this year, down from 46 in 2010 and from 85 in 2000.
Public support for the death penalty is also dropping. In 1994, 80% of the populace was in favor of state-sponsored killings. That number dropped to 69% in 2007 and to 61% today.
What accounts for the drop?
Kent Scheidegger of the pro-death penalty Criminal Justice Legal Foundation attributes it to a drop in violent crime. According to the FBI, the number of violent crimes has dropped 35% over the past 20 years. Doug Berman a professor at Ohio State University (and of Sentencing Law and Policy) thinks the decrease is due to the extreme costs associated with death penalty cases.
The Urban Institute conducted a study in Maryland in 2008 and found that a "successful" death penalty prosecution (I would assume that's a euphemism for "conviction") cost taxpayers an average of $3 million while a non-death capital prosecution ran a tab of $1.1 million.
Then there are the lingering concerns that innocent people could be executed. The state of Illinois has abolished the death penalty over concerns that innocent people were on death row. Oregon has imposed a moratorium on executions. New York, New Jersey and New Mexico have all repealed their death penalty statutes.
While cost may influence politicians to reconsider the efficacy of strapping a person to a gurney and injecting poison into their veins, the larger concern to most folks is the possibility that the courts got in a wrong in a given case. While death penalty supporters point to recent exonerations as proof that the system works, most of us recognize that with every death row inmate who is exonerated we have further evidence that our criminal (in)justice system is broken.
Faulty and unreliable eyewitness testimony, junk science, perjury and the weakening of the presumption of innocence have put innocent men and women behind bars. Junk science killed Cameron Willingham. Faulty and unreliable eyewitness testimony killed Troy Davis.
It's time to make the death penalty history.