Are Americans growing weary of the expense and moral uncertainty of the use of capital punishment? Maybe so reports the Death Penalty Information Center.
The number of new death sentences dropped dramatically in 2011, falling below 100 for the first time in the modern era of capital punishment. Executions also continued to decline, while developments in a variety of states illustrated the growing discomfort that many Americans have with the death penalty. Illinois abolished the death penalty in 2011, the governor of Oregon declared a moratorium on all executions, and a national outcry was heard around the execution of Troy Davis in Georgia because of doubts about his guilt.
Death sentences continued their sharp decline since the 1990s. The number of new death sentences imposed in 2011 stands at 78, a decline of about 75 percent since 1996, when 315 inmates were sentenced to death. This is the lowest number of death sentences in any year since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Texas, which had 48 new death sentences in 1999, had only 8 this year.
California, the state with the largest death row, saw its death sentences drop by more than half this year--10 compared with 29 in 2010 (at least 2 other cases resulted in a jury verdict of death, but the judge has not imposed the sentence). Many death penalty states, such as Maryland, South Carolina, Missouri and Indiana had no new death sentences in 2011. The South and West combined for 87 percent of the death sentences, while the Midwest and Northeast had 12 percent. The annual number of death sentences began declining after 1998. In the 1990s there were close to 300 death sentences annually. Since then, the number has dropped steadily, as the risks of executing the innocent grew more apparent and life without parole sentences became more common. In every region of the country, death sentences have declined, which eventually will affect the number of executions.
Executions also decreased in 2011. There were 43 executions in 13 states, a 56 percent decline since 1999, when there were 98. Texas, which had 24 executions in 2009 and 17 in 2010, had 13 in 2011, a drop of 46 percent in two years. Ohio, which recently experienced a rise in executions, saw its numbers drop by 38 percent from 2010 to 2011, in part because of more problems with its lethal injection process. Similar to the pattern in other years, 74 percent of the executions were in the South.
A 2011 Gallup Poll, which annually tracks America’s abstract support for the death penalty, recorded the lowest level of support, and the highest level of opposition, in almost 40 years. Only 61 percent supported the death penalty, compared to 80 percent in 1994; 35 percent were opposed, compared to 16 percent in 1994. In a more in-depth CNN poll this year that gave respondents a choice between the death penalty and a sentence of life without parole for those who commit murder, 50 percent chose a life sentence, while 48 percent chose death. This echoes a 2010 D.P.I.C. poll showing that a majority of Americans favor alternatives to the death penalty.
In January, the Illinois legislature voted to repeal the death penalty, replacing it with a sentence of life without parole. The legislation requires some of the money saved by this action to go to victims’ services and crime prevention. Governor Pat Quinn signed the bill, making Illinois the fourth state in four years to abandon capital punishment. A state commission reported $100 million had been spent on assisting counties with death penalty prosecutions over the past 7 years, while the state’s deficit had become one of the largest in the country. Illinois had not had an execution in 12 years.
In Georgia, a very different scenario played out, but it also exposed deep concerns about the use of the death penalty. On September 21 Georgia executed Troy Davis, despite doubts about his guilt and urgent requests from national and international leaders, including Pope Benedict XVI, to spare his life.Davis had been convicted principally on the basis of eyewitness testimony, a form of evidence that has recently come under increasing scrutiny.Years after his trial, 7 of the 9 state witnesses against Davis changed their stories.
Citizens protested in front of the White House, the Supreme Court and the Georgia prison where the execution took place. Similar demonstrations occurred in cities around the world. President Jimmy Carter said, "If one of our fellow citizens can be executed with so much doubt surrounding his guilt, then the death penalty system in our country is unjust and outdated."
In Oregon on November 22 Governor John Kitzhaber halted a pending execution and declared that no additional executions would occur during his tenure. He urged the legislature and the people of the state to seek a more sensible way to address serious crime: "I am convinced we can find a better solution that keeps society safe, supports the victims of crime and their families and reflects Oregon values," he stated. "I refuse to be a part of this compromised and inequitable system any longer; and I will not allow further executions while I am Governor." Although he acted within the singular powers accorded to the governor, he echoed the objections of many to a death penalty system that had resulted in two executions over 33 years, and only of inmates unwilling to fight for their own life.