Is 2007 The Beginning Of The End Of The Death Penalty?

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As 2007 draws to a close, it’s again time for the annual data about executions in the US.  From my abolitionist’s perspective, this year’s statistics are better than last year’s and are trending in the right direction.  But the numbers are especially troubling because they show a concentration of state killing and a continued enthusiasm for it in Texas.

Join me across the wall for the 2007 wrap up.

The New York Times reports:

This year’s death penalty bombshells – a de facto national moratorium, a state abolition and the smallest number of executions in more than a decade – have masked what may be the most significant and lasting development. For the first time in the modern history of the death penalty, more than 60 percent of all American executions took place in Texas.

Over the past three decades, the proportion of executions nationwide performed in Texas has held relatively steady, averaging 37 percent. Only once before, in 1986, has the state accounted for even a slight majority of the executions, and that was in a year with 18 executions nationwide.

But enthusiasm for executions outside of Texas has dropped sharply. Of the 42 executions in the last year, 26 were in Texas. The remaining 16 were spread across nine other states, none of which executed more than three people. Many legal experts say the trend will probably continue.

The trend in the starkest terms is that Texas executes and other states refrain from state killing.  As University of Houston Professor David Dow points out, “”The reason that Texas will end up monopolizing executions is because every other state will eliminate it de jure, as New Jersey did, or de facto, as other states have.”  According to the Times and the Death Penalty Information Center, Texas’s rate of imposing the death penalty isn’t higher than other states, it’s just far more aggressive in carrying out executions state killings.

Other developments in 2007 point strongly toward abolition of state killing in the US:

*All state executions have been stayed until the Supreme Court decides the constitutionality of lethal injection as a means of killing.  A decision is not expected until Spring.  If the decision is unfavorable to abolition, there will be a host of immediately re-scheduled executions.  There are no real predictions on how the Court lines up on the issue.

*New Jersey legislatively abolished its death penalty.  My previous essay about this fantastic news is here, with follow-ups here and here.

*There are possible abolition moves in other states including New Mexico and Montana, but these are not as strong (yet) as the initiative in New Jersey was.

*The rate at which Texas has been imposing the death penalty, believe it or not, is actually falling:

In the 10 years ending in 2004, Texas condemned an average of 34 prisoners each year – about 15 percent of the national total. In the last three years, as the number of death sentences nationwide dropped significantly, from almost 300 in 1998 to about 110 in 2007, the number in Texas has dropped along with it, to 13 – or 12 percent.

Indeed, according to a 2004 study by three professors of law and statistics at Cornell published in The Journal of Empirical Legal Studies, Texas prosecutors and juries were no more apt to seek and impose death sentences than those in the rest of the country.

*The US Supreme Court has been critical of Texas’ appeals processes in death penalty cases.  And with just cause.  Just before the moratorium took affect, Texas showed a shameful disregard for the legal rights of one of those it had condemned to death:

The last execution before the Supreme Court imposed a de facto moratorium happened in Texas, and in emblematic fashion. The presiding judge on the state’s highest court for criminal matters, Judge Sharon Keller, closed the courthouse at its regular time of 5 p.m. and turned back an attempt to file appeal papers a few minutes later, according to a complaint in a wrongful-death suit filed in federal court last month.

The inmate, Michael Richard, was executed that evening.

Judge Keller, in a motion to dismiss the case filed this month, acknowledged that she alone had the authority to keep the court’s clerk’s office open but said that Mr. Richard’s lawyers could have tried to file their papers directly with another judge on the court.

*Today, the New York Times again has written another strong Editorial in favor of abolition and about Texas’ role in meting out death:

It is a shameful distinction, but Texas is the undisputed capital of capital punishment. At a time when the rest of the country is having serious doubts about the death penalty, more than 60 percent of all American executions this year took place in Texas. That gaping disparity provides further evidence that Texas’s governor, Legislature, courts and voters should reassess their addiction to executions.

/snip

The traditional objections to the death penalty remain as true as ever. It is barbaric – governments should simply not be in the business of putting people to death. It is imposed in racially discriminatory ways. And it is too subject to error, which cannot be corrected after an execution has taken place.

In recent years, two other developments have undercut the public’s faith in capital punishment.

There has been a tidal wave of DNA exonerations, in which it has been scientifically proved that the wrong people had been sentenced to death. There is also increasing awareness that even methods of execution considered relatively humane impose considerable suffering on the condemned.

So, in 2007, there was movement, again, toward abolition of the state death penalty. The movement is glacial.  And the possibility for a judicial set back in Spring, 2008, is obvious.  I’m still hoping and working for abolition in my lifetime, and I still see it as a possibility.

Please join me in ending the death penalty, in stopping all state killing.    

8 comments

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    • davidseth on December 27, 2007 at 2:50 pm
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    The end of this barbaric practice cannot happen soon enough.

  1. to begin a wave banning the death penalty.

    Perhaps the most egregious execution ever took place there, that of one Bruno Hauptmann reputed “Fiend of the Century.”

    How can you possibly top the blind eyewitness who claimed to have seen Hauptmann speeding toward the Lindbergh estate?  The witness was drawing compensation for being legally blind.

    Possibly with the defense lawyer Hauptmann had. Edward J. Reilly was in the later stages of syphilitic brain disorder.  Didn’t prevent “Death House” Reilly from entertaining a steady stream of buxom “secretaries,” since he had nothing better to do with his time before seeing his client convicted of the crime Reilly was sure Hauptmann had committed.

    J. Edgar Hoover, then just beginning his rise to power, kept his distance from the framing of Hauptmann but today the FBI makes a case for the guilt of Hauptmann by naturally omitting certain relevant facts like the blind eyewitness.

    Eat your heart out, Gonzo.  Even you couldn’t have done better.

    Best,  Terry

  2. It’s also getting closer in Nebraska. Over at the best progressive blog in Nebraska they think it might be the best chance yet. Mind you the governor would veto it so we are not there yet but it might pass. Check out this blog post for more:

    http://newnebraska.net/showDia

    • pfiore8 on December 27, 2007 at 4:53 pm

  3. Bill Clinton’s “60 New Death Penalties” allow for execution for offences as trivial as growing a field of hemp.

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