Fordham Law

Death row executions drop to 14-year low

Deborah Denno in USA Today, December 11, 2008

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WASHINGTON — The number of executions nationwide dropped to 37 in 2008, a 14-year low that continues a trend away from use of the ultimate punishment, a report out Thursday showed.
The decline persisted despite a Supreme Court decision in April that ended a seven-month moratorium on executions and led several states to set new execution dates for condemned inmates. The justices voted 7-2 to reject a challenge to a standard lethal-injection method.

The Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment and compiles annual statistics, reports that for the most part only Southern states resumed executions. Ohio, which carried out two, was the only state outside the South to impose the death penalty in 2008.

<b>"Death row attorneys were worried about a rush of executions after the ruling," says Deborah Denno, a law professor at Fordham University in New York City. "I think the death penalty has taken a blow, though, especially because of the costs. With states struggling with the economy, people are asking, 'Is this the way to spend money?' "</b>

The high costs of capital cases typically stem from longer trials and protracted appeals. A California state commission reported in June that its death penalty system costs more than $100 million a year to administer. It termed the state system "dysfunctional," largely because of a backlog of appeals.

Texas, a longtime leader in the number of executions, conducted nearly half of this year's: 18. Yet it dropped from 26 in 2007.

"I think a good part of that was due to the court case, while Texas …waited for … the green light," says Shannon Edmonds of the Texas District and County Attorneys Association. "I am not expecting the drop-off in Texas to continue."

Yet University of Texas law professor Jordan Steiker notes Texas, like states nationwide, has fewer death sentences and could, in the long run, see a drop in executions.

Thirty-six states allow capital punishment. Some, including California, have suspended executions because of legal challenges over lethal injection. Others, such as Illinois, have slowed or temporarily halted the use of capital punishment for reasons such as concern over innocent defendants. The number of death sentences plummeted nationwide since the 1990s, separate data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics show.

Since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, executions peaked at 98 in 1999. Around that time, defendants started using DNA testing to assert their innocence.

Justice John Paul Stevens in April called for an end to the death penalty. Yet he said court precedent required him to vote to reject a challenge to lethal injections.