Executing the Death Penalty

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley speaks at a rally in support of repealing the state's death penalty in Annapolis, Md., Tuesday,
Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley speaks at a rally in support of repealing the state's death penalty in Annapolis, Md., Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2013. O'Malley, who said he will be making repeal a priority, argued that the death penalty is a waste of resources that could be better used to fight crime in more productive ways. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

In the spring of 1999, a French journalist was in Chicago to write about the latest death row exoneration and, as our lunch concluded, made a stunningly bold prediction. "Your country will abolish capital punishment in the next 25 years," she declared.

Laughing, I reminded her that public support for the death penalty was at an all-time high, capital punishment was the law in 38 states and most of them were routinely performing executions.

She waved her hand dismissively, pointing out that her country had been beheading prisoners since the French Revolution until, for economic and moral reasons, the death penalty gradually fell into disuse in the 1970s and was finally abolished. Same thing had happened throughout Europe. "Your country may have a cowboy mentality," she concluded, " but even cowboys don't like being on the wrong side of history."

I thought of our conversation on Friday when I learned that Maryland will become the first state south of the Mason-Dixon line to ban capital punishment. Gov. Martin O'Malley has promised to sign abolitionist legislation as soon as it reaches his desk, making Maryland the 18th state to end the death penalty -- and the sixth in as many years. "It shows that the anti-death penalty movement is accelerating," said Benjamin Jealous, president of the NAACP, at a news conference with Gov. O'Malley.

Other trends indicate that Jealous is right. Only nine states performed executions last year, and new death sentences plummeted to the second lowest number since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

In California, the state with the most populous death row, no executions have been carried out since 2006 while the system continues to be reviewed. In Oregon, Gov. John Kitzhaber suspended executions for the remainder of his term. Lethal injection challenges have led to moratoriums in Arkansas, Kentucky and North Carolina.

Even Texas, which accounted for more than one-third of the executions in 2012, is debating five legislative safeguards against wrongful convictions in capital cases -- and a House bill that would abolish the death penalty altogether. Earlier this month, the Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court called for an innocence commission to investigate wrongful convictions in his state, which ranks third in death row exonerations.

Across the nation this year, there have been only five executions, one involving a Virginia man who stubbornly refused to appeal his sentence. (Virginia has performed as many executions as Texas since 1976, but now has eight residents on death row, its lowest ever death row population.) Nineteen executions have been scheduled for the remainder of the year -- all in just four states -- a record low since capital punishment resumed in earnest. To put it another way, 46 states will not perform executions in 2013.

What explains these dramatic trends?

  • The Discovery of Innocence. Since 1973, 142 death row inmates have been officially exonerated, with the vast majority cleared in the past 20 years. The innocence issue has had a profound effect on building coalitions against the death penalty by crossing ideological and party lines. Even law-and-order Republicans do not favor sentencing innocents to death. And, exonerees have banded together to effectively fight for abolition, among them Kirk Bloodsworth, the Maryland man who became the first condemned prisoner to be exonerated by DNA. Bloodsworth was key to last week's vote, which "reflected a growing unease among lawmakers in Maryland and across the country that the risk of putting an innocent person to death remains too great...," the Washington Post reported.
  • Changing Public Opinion. After support for the death penalty peaked in the mid-1990s at a whopping 80 percent, it steadily declined until leveling off at 63 percent today. Still high, but with two caveats. First, strong opposition to capital punishment has been growing and recently reached its highest level in 40 years. Second, for the first time polls indicated that if given a choice between the death penalty and life without parole for murder, a majority favor a life sentence. Bedrock support for the death penalty has now eroded to the point where abolition has become a realistic option.
  • Rising costs. Capital punishment has always been far more expensive than incarcerating prisoners for life. The extent of the difference varies from state to state, but a study of 162 capital cases in Maryland found that those cases cost the taxpayers $186 million more than if the death penalty had not existed. A California study placed the additional cost of death row confinement at $63.3 million annually. The expense of investigations, prosecutions, defense lawyers, appeals and confinement on a condemned unit all add up. In a time of budgetary shortfalls and taxpayer rebellions, county DA's are coming to realize that, even if they zealously support the death penalty, they simply can't afford it.

The movement to execute the death penalty is reversible, of course, but that is unlikely. Even though it feels to some like the sky is falling when abolition is at hand, the issue is quickly forgotten, often becoming a source of pride when it is gone.

As impossible as it seemed at the time, perhaps my French colleague was prescient. If so, our country will join France and 132 other nations that have eliminated executions, including Australia, Cambodia, Canada, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Germany, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Mexico, New Zealand, Philippines, Poland, Rwanda, Serbia, South Africa, Spain, Togo, Turkey, the United Kingdom and Venezuela.

Fifty-seven countries have retained the death penalty, but only 21 regularly use it, with China, Iran and N. Korea (where is Dennis Rodman on this?) leading the way, according to Amnesty International.

This begs the question: Who should we emulate on human rights, Canada or Iran?

And what's next? Maryland exoneree Bloodsworth is making no small plans. "Soon, Governor O'Malley's signature will ensure that no one is ever again forced to endure what I did as an innocent man condemned to death," he said in an email. "We... will work to make sure that the momentum of Maryland's landmark achievement continues far beyond its borders, into each of the 32 other states where the death penalty still remains."

When the final vote for abolition was counted, Bloodsworth had raised his arms toward the ceiling of the House gallery. It seemed, at long last, that anything was possible.