Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The inexorable march toward abolition

Last week Maryland became the sixth state in the so-called modern era (after the Supreme Court reversed its decision in Furman v. Georgia with its decision in Gregg v. Georgia) to abolish the death penalty. Maryland now joins Washington, D.C. and 18 other states who have no enforceable death penalty.

Like the incessant drip of a leaky faucet in the middle of the night, the death penalty is slowing fading away. Just how many more states must abolish capital punishment before its very use becomes "unusual?"

According to my research there are 23 states who have either never executed an inmate or who haven't executed an inmate in the last ten years. If you add Connecticut and Maryland to the list, now that they have legislatively abolished state-sponsored murder of inmates, that's half the states in the Union.

Only 20 states have carried out executions in the last five years. That's the drip...drip...drip you hear in the background.

Even in the spiritual home of capital punishment - Texas - there has been but one execution in 2013. The next scheduled execution isn't until April 3 (of course that is but the first of five scheduled in April).

People are beginning to understand the high cost of the death penalty. In addition to the cost of locking someone up in a special prison there is also the expense of trial - and the appeals. As most defendants charged with capital murder are indigent, its the state who picks up the tab for lawyers, investigators and experts. With news of every exoneration, people are beginning to realize that our criminal (in)justice system makes mistakes - and, with the death penalty, there are no second chances.

Maybe we are finally moving beyond our revenge for the sake of revenge mode of punishment. Maybe we've come to realize that the true measure of a society is how it treats its poorest and weakest members. Maybe we've woken up to the fact that killing an inmate doesn't bring back his victims.

Whatever the reason, the tide is turning. Just how long will it be til those who cling to the death penalty realize they are on the wrong side of history?

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