Number of death sentences hits a 35-year lowDeborah Denno in USA Today, December 15, 2011
WASHINGTON – The number of state executions continued to decline in 2011, according to an annual report issued Thursday, and for the first time in 35 years, the number of new death sentences meted out fell to below 100.
The Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment and puts out an annual tally of executions based on state and federal information, asserts that recent developments reflect "the growing discomfort that many Americans have with the death penalty."
Illinois abolished the death penalty — becoming the fourth state in recent years to stop executions. Sixteen states now forbid capital punishment; 34 allow it. In Oregon, which allows for it, Gov. John Kitzhaber, Democrat, recently declared a moratorium for his time in office.
Polls show, however, majority support for the death penalty, and public backing was evident during a Republican presidential debate last September. The audience applauded at just the mention of hundreds of executions in Texas.
Fordham University law professor Deborah Denno notes that while the nation is experiencing a decline in the use of the death penalty, several states regularly rely on it. Pointing to Texas as an example, she said, "We do have these attitudes that reflect regional differences."
There were 43 executions in 2011, down slightly from 46 last year and half of the 85 executions in 2000. There were 78 new inmates under death sentence in 2011, compared with 112 in 2010 and 224 in 2000, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
The center notes that public support has dropped over the past decade as reported by Gallup, to the current 61%, from 68% in 2001.
Denno cites two factors in the trend away from capital punishment: that information about innocent convicts and the high costs of capital cases is more readily circulated in the Internet age, and that the Supreme Court, which repeatedly upholds capital punishment, has chipped away at when it can be used. Since the justices reinstated capital punishment in 1976 after a four-year freeze based on constitutional problems, they have, for example, put capital punishment off-limits in cases when the defendant was a juvenile or mentally disabled.
Kent Scheidegger, of the Sacramento-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which endorses capital punishment, says such rulings have only "chiseled at the edges. These were people who were rarely sentenced to death anyway."
"The public still supports capital punishment," he says. Yet he observes that the high cost of prosecuting capital cases and defending the sentences, along with the years of delay before an execution is carried out have led prosecutors to avoid seeking the death penalty in more cases.
The Death Penalty Information Center reports that death sentences have dropped even in states with large death rows, such as Texas and California. There were eight new death sentences in Texas this year and 10 in California.
Texas executed 13 convicts in 2011; in 2010, it executed 17. Alabama was second in the number of executions in 2011, 6 ; Alabama had 5 in 2010; Ohio executed 5 convicts, down from 8 in 2010; and Georgia executed four convicts, up from two in 2010. One of the Georgia defendants was Troy Davis, whose murder conviction in the 1989 death of a police officer had drawn wide protest, including from Amnesty International, because of questions about eyewitness accounts.
Overall, since 1976 Texas has accounted for 37% percent of all executions — 477 total, according to the center's report.
At a Republican presidential debate in California last September, moderator Brian Williams began asking Texas Gov. Rick Perry about the number of executions during his tenure, noting, "your state has executed 234 death row inmates, more than any other governor in modern times." The audience erupted in applause.
NBC news anchor Williams then asked Perry about that audience reaction, and the Texas governor said, "I think Americans understand justice. I think Americans are clearly, in the vast majority of cases, supportive of capital punishment."