The Looming Death of the Death Penalty

In recent years, capital punishment has been on a sharp decline, both in the courts and in the court of public opinion

death chamber.JPG

Reuters

The year-end report by the folks at the Death Penalty Information Center tell more and more Americans what they already know in their hearts to be true: The death penalty experiment is failing yet again. Undermined by overzealous prosecutors, a hobby-horse for incurious politicians, too often taken unseriously by jurors and witnesses, capital punishment in America has devolved since 1976 into a costly, inaccurate, racially biased, and unseemly proposition.

We clearly can't do it right, and more people are wondering whether we should continue doing it at all. The facts and figures of 2011 soberly reflect the nation's evolving perceptions of the problems inherent in the justice system's ultimate punishment. For decades, "death is different" has been the courtroom mantra of capital cases. But now, and with increasing clarity, "death is different" is becoming a discernible trend all across the country. From the DPIC's annual summary:

New death sentences dropped to 78 in 2011, representing a dramatic decline from last year's number of 112 and marking the first time since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976 that the country has produced fewer than 100 death sentences in a single year... Death sentences have declined about 75 percent since 1996, when 315 individuals were sentenced to death. Executions have also steadily decreased nationwide, with 43 in 2011 and 46 in 2010, representing a 56 percent decline since 1999, when there were 98. Texas had 13 executions in 2011, and 24 in 2009, representing a 46 percent drop over two years.

There are a lot of reasons for these numbers. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty less often because of the prohibitive costs of capital cases. Judges and jurors have new sentencing options (like life in prison without parole). Politicians can no longer deny the unsettling number of wrongful convictions that have sent hundreds of innocent people to death row over the years. The Supreme Court has sent unmistakable signals to lower court judges to rein in trial excesses. And most of the civilized world has turned against the practice.

So have more Americans. Again, from the DPIC's report:

Also this year, the Gallup Poll, which measures the public's support for the death penalty, but without offering alternatives, recorded the lowest level of support and the highest level of opposition in almost 40 years. Only 61 percent supported the death penalty, compared to 80 percent in 1994. Thirty-five percent were opposed, compared to 16 percent in 1994. A more in-depth CNN poll gave respondents a choice between the death penalty and life without parole for those who commit murder. Fifty percent chose a life sentence, while 48 percent chose death.   

The most ardent supporters of capital punishment -- the ones who want more, not fewer executions -- look at all these figures and say in frustration: "Of course the rate of executions is down. This is down because of soft judges and crafty defense attorneys, and because of the murderers themselves, who with nothing to lose and nothing better to do have succeeded in choking the criminal justice system with all their bogus appeals." It's the same tired argument these folks have made for years, however, and it's clearly getting less traction -- in courtrooms, in living rooms, and in state legislatures. 



Take the big death penalty stories of 2011. They all buttress the figures offered by the DPIC. For example, there was the dramatic September execution in Georgia of Troy Davis, which educated millions of people about the fallibility of eyewitness testimony in criminal cases. Reasonable people have reasonably disagreed about whether justice was served in the case, but one essential fact has always jumped out at me. After a trial that included at least 40 witnesses, it took Davis' jury less than two hours to convict him of murder. That's just not good enough.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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