Use of executions falling in the US

Thirty-six years after the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty, its use is waning, with prosecutors and juries preferring to sentence convicted murderers to life in prison without parole.

New data for 2012 show that nine states executed inmates this year, the fewest in two decades, and the number of death sentences handed down this year – 80 – was about a third of the total in 2000.

“We have done polling on this, and the biggest reason is lingering doubt about guilt,” said Richard C Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Centre, which tracks executions around the country and released the numbers this week. “Between 90 and 95 per cent of the people are aware that there have been exonerations based on DNA evidence.”

While a majority of states – 33 – still have the death penalty on the books, that number has also been on the decline. Connecticut banned capital punishment this year, the fifth state in five years to do so, following Illinois, New Jersey, New Mexico and New York. Twenty-nine states either do not have the death penalty or have not carried out an execution in five years.

In addition, four states with histories of executing convicted murderers – Indiana, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia – sentenced no one to death this year. Three-quarters of the 43 people put to death in 2012 were in four states: Arizona, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas.

Major reason

Another major reason for the decline is that the death penalty involves enormous expense and numerous appeals; some prosecutors say they prefer life imprisonment. Stan Garnett, the district attorney in Boulder County,c., wrote recently that as his state considered repealing the death penalty, he would like his fellow citizens to know that he was “not morally or philosophically opposed” to it.

But he considers the death penalty impractical because it is expensive, time-consuming and often unfairly applied.
“A 1994 Colorado death verdict currently pending before the US Supreme Court has cost the state of Colorado nearly $18 million to fund through all the appeals,” Garnett wrote. He said his office’s operating budget is $4.6 million and prosecutes 1,900 felonies a year.
In California, a referendum last month seeking to end the death penalty because of its cost narrowly failed to achieve a majority.

But the 47 per cent of voters who supported the referendum represents a much larger number of Californians opposing capital punishment than ever before. The state has not carried out an execution in nearly seven years.

A year ago, the chief justice of the California Supreme Court, Tani Cantil-Sakauye, called for a re-evaluation of the death penalty system, saying it was ineffective. Asked if she supported the death penalty, she replied: “I don’t know if the question is whether you believe in it anymore. I think the greater question is its effectiveness and, given the choices we face in California, should we have a merit-based discussion on its effectiveness and costs?”

Texas executed 15 people this year, by far the most in the country. But for the eighth consecutive year it executed more people than it sentenced to death, signalling that fewer executions will be carried out in the future, according to the Death Penalty Information Centre, in Washington.

The total number of people on death row in the country is 3,170, down from 3,670 in 2000.James S Liebman, a law professor at Columbia University, said he had studied the death penalty’s use by county, rather than by state, because punishment is sought at the county level, and he found that 60 percent of the nation’s counties no longer seek it. In addition, he said, some counties that in the past had led the country in its use, like Houston, did not hand down a single death penalty this year.

“A lot of officials have come to the conclusion that if they are concerned about deterrence and protection of their citizens and the diminishing of crime, the death penalty is not a very good strategy,” Liebman said. “The counties that use it are ones that tend to spend a lot less money on law enforcement, criminal justice and the courts. They are using it instead of modern law enforcement.”

Liebman, like Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Centre, noted that murders account for a small percentage of crimes, yet seeking the death penalty can take up most of a prosecutor’s budget. Death penalty cases usually involve two trials – one to determine guilt, and the other to decide on the death penalty – and better lawyers for the defence. In addition, prosecutors do not like to lose death penalty cases, so they tend to put in far greater effort and resources.

Dieter added: “Juries know that mistakes have been made and have lingering doubts about absolute guilt. Life without parole gives them an alternative.”

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