[Deathpenalty]death penalty news----USA
rhalperi at mail.smu.edu
Sun Nov 21 22:09:01 CST 2004
What's behind decline in death sentences----Americans are using the
ultimate punishment less and less. But that doesn't mean it's on the way
Some took plea deals to avoid the possibility; others were spared the
ultimate punishment by juries who didn't think it made sense in their
cases. But they all reflect the current downward trend in death sentences
When the United States Justice Department recently released statistics
showing that the number of death sentences imposed in 2003 had hit a
30-year low, it deepened a debate over society's ultimate punishment,
fueling a controversy that has simmered from statehouses to courtrooms for
Opponents read the decline as part of growing public uneasiness, as
exonerations based on DNA evidence continue. Supporters say the drop
simply reflects a decline in murder rates and changes in sentencing laws.
What no one seems to dispute is that the numbers are dropping: Only 144
new inmates were sent to death row last year, down from a high of 320 in
In addition, the number of executions actually carried out is falling, as
well as the number of murder cases submitted for capital-punishment
consideration. The explanations are varied and conflicting.
As the debate goes on, all eyes are on the US Supreme Court and its
pending decision on whether juvenile offenders should be eligible for the
death penalty - a case that will test the court's barometer of public
sentiment, not only on juvenile executions, but on capital punishment more
generally in the United States, one of the only countries that still
"Much depends on this juvenile case," says Michael Radelet, a sociologist
at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and an expert on Florida's death
row. "But the downward trend has been happening for [several] years."
In Florida, for instance, almost 40 people were sent to death row annually
in the 1990s. By 2001, that number was 16, and today it is only 8. Dr.
Radelet attributes the decline to a combination of factors: the media's
attention to wrongful convictions, the high cost of prosecuting capital
cases, and the passage of life-without-parole laws, which many states
enacted in the mid-1990s and which give jurors an option short of death
but severe enough to ensure that a criminal will never rejoin society.
In Ohio, for instance, death sentences have been cut by almost 1/3 since
the state enacted its life-without-parole law in 1996, and the numbers are
even higher in Florida. Only two of the 38 death-penalty states lack that
option: Texas and New Mexico - and New Mexico has only two inmates on its
Texas, with 446 inmates on its death row, is the exception - and a big one
- to the national trend. The state continues to put an average of 34
people on death row each year, and many experts point to the fact that
Texas juries do not have the range of options that exist other states.
Here, the choice is between life with parole and death.
"When juries in Texas consider what is an appropriate sentence, life with
parole has got risks associated with it," says Richard Dieter of the Death
Penalty Information Center, which opposes the punishment. "But polls show
that the public wants alternatives to the death penalty."
A recent state poll, for instance, shows that 78 % of respondents are in
favor of changing the law to allow life in prison without parole. It has
failed in past legislative sessions, but will be offered again in the
upcoming session. Yet 3 in 4 Texans also still support the death penalty -
even though 70 % believe that the state has executed an innocent person.
Such poll numbers are lower nationally, but the inconsistencies between
these two ideas remain, says Franklin Zimring, a law professor and
director of the criminal-justice research program at University of
California at Berkeley. "The United States is the world capital of
ambivalence on this issue. We don't want to see innocent people executed,
but we don't like murderers."
Still, some insist the two seemingly incompatible ideas can be reconciled,
and that the societal benefits of capital punishment outweigh its risks.
"If you have the same system for the next 100 years, the odds are that an
innocent person will be executed," says Joshua Marquis, the district
attorney in Astoria, Ore., and a death-penalty supporter. "But is that
going to change my opinion that the death penalty is necessary? No."
Mr. Marquis says part of the decline in death sentences has to do with
medical advances in the past 30 years. Victims of gunshot wounds, for
instance, are being saved at higher rates - making irrelevant the need for
Also, he says, crime rates have decreased while pressure to not seek the
death penalty has risen because of the high costs associated with it.
But perhaps most important, he says, prosecutors have become more
discriminating in the kinds of capital cases they present to juries. A
murder case may be eligible for the death penalty, for instance, but that
doesn't mean it should be charged that way: Mitigating factors, such as
the defendant's history and mental health, should be taken into account
along with the circumstances of the crime.
"I don't think [the decline in death sentences] signals a massive sea
change in the public's perception of the death penalty," says Marquis, a
board member of the National District Attorneys Association, "but rather a
recognition by prosecutors and ultimately by juries that the punishment
should be reserved for the worst of the worst."
(source: Christian Science Monitor)
More information about the DeathPenalty