Diane Dimond: Our dying death penalty

Diane Dimond

Diane Dimond

As much of the world is consumed with how to respond to the bloodthirsty and murderous group known as ISIS, as various ways for our troops to kill radical Islamists are contemplated, here at home the appetite for state-sponsored killings is down.

It’s an interesting contrast to contemplate while studying the findings from two newly released year-end reports.

The Death Penalty Information Center reveals that this year the death penalty was carried out in the United States far less often than, say, back in the mid- to late-’90s when murder rates in big cities soared and there was a nationwide crack cocaine epidemic. At the peak, in 1999, there were 98 executions. This year the number was down to 28.

Even more startling is the finding that the imposition of new death penalties has plummeted. Americans seem to be losing their collective appetite for this kind of punishment. At its peak two decades ago, states and the federal government issued 315 new death sentences in one year. This year that number was 49.

Texas, the state that has traditionally held the top spot for executions (40 killed in 2000), put only 13 convicts to death this year. There were years when Texas handed down death sentences to nearly 50 people, yet this year juries in the Lone Star state agreed to only three.

The Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty’s annual report highlighted Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston. It’s been the execution epicenter, delivering a staggering 294 death sentences and executing more convicts than any other county in the United States. This year Harris County returned exactly no death sentences.

The pattern is also being seen in the second and third place execution states: Missouri and Georgia. In 2015, Missouri put to death six convicts, Georgia five. But guess how many new capital punishment sentences they imposed this year? Zero.

“The use of the death penalty is becoming increasingly rare and increasingly isolated in the U.S.,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “These are not just annual blips in statistics, but reflect a broad change in attitudes.”

For the record, prosecutors in 31 states, the federal government and the U.S. military still have the right to pursue the ultimate penalty. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have outlawed capital punishment.

So why the shift away from the death penalty? It might be the high legal costs attached to such prosecutions: up to $3 million for each case, from trial through the lengthy appeals process. Prisoners have been known to languish for decades, filing appeal after appeal, as they await their ultimate fates. Sometimes, the state in which they were sentenced to die decides to outlaw the practice.

American juries could be deciding against death because they see a racial disparity in sentencing.

Perhaps it was the six death row prisoners exonerated this year. The states of Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and Texas were on track to execute each of the six until they were all cleared of all charges. (Note: 156 convicts have been freed from death row since 1973.) Wrongful convictions are rare, but they have surely occurred.

Maybe we’re changing our minds about the death penalty because worldwide suppliers of the necessary lethal injection drugs are refusing to sell to U.S. prisons.
Conceivably, we have been moved by the shame of global condemnation of our policy that executes fellow human beings.

How many more years will it take before we come to the conclusion that carrying out the death penalty is too expensive, too randomly applied, too fraught with potential evidentiary mistakes?

I don’t have a precise answer to that question. Who knows if there will ever be a time that we decide to do away with capital punishment in this country. Certainly, there will be more heinous cases of mass murder for which prosecutors will be urged, again, to seek the ultimate punishment.

But even now, in this time of increased fear about our national security and of passionate calls for vengeance against terrorists, the trend for deadly retribution against our own is obviously waning.

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