Friday, December 18, 2009

Death Penalty Dysphoria

Some light reading for you as we kick off the end-of-the-semester holiday break.

Executions in U.S. Rose in '09, but Death Sentences Dropped:

More death row convicts were executed in the United States this year than last, but juries continue to grow more wary of capital punishment, according to a new report.

Death sentences handed down by judges and juries in 2009 continued a trend of decline for seven years in a row, with 106 projected for the year. That level is down two-thirds from a peak of 328 in 1994, according to the report being released Friday by the Death Penalty Information Center, a research organization that opposes capital punishment.

While death sentences are in decline, executions rose in the past year, according to the new report. Fifty-two prisoners have been put to death in 2009, compared with 42 in 2007 and 37 in 2008.
None of this is surprising if you've been reading this blog or following capital punishment trends in general. Following the Baze moratorium of '07-'08, the number of executions this year was bound to be much higher than the two previous years. And as the "Great Recession" wiped out state budgets, pursuing costly capital cases has become financially impossible for many jurisdictions, so the numbers of inmates being sentenced to death has declined along with it.

Yes, Virginia, even in Texas:
The sentencing drop was most striking in Texas, which averaged 34 death sentences a year in the 1990s and had 9 this year. Vic Wisner, a former assistant district attorney in Houston, said a “constant media drumbeat” about suspect convictions and exonerations “has really changed the attitude of jurors.”

Mr. Wisner said that while polls showed continued general support for capital punishment, “there is a real worry by jurors of, ‘I believe in it, but what if we later find out it was someone else and it’s too late to do anything about it?’ ”

In 2005, Texas juries were given the option of sentencing defendants to life without parole.

The LWOP option probably had more to do with fewer death sentences being handed down than any "constant media drumbeat" regarding exoneration.

But not according to my favorite pro-death penalty adherent (who, for whatever reason, continues to be quoted by the NYT every time a death penalty story comes up).
Kent Scheidegger, the legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which supports capital punishment, argued that the decline in death sentences also corresponded to a decline in the murder rate, and criticized efforts to use cost arguments against the death penalty. The government could “knock a large chunk off of the cost” of execution by streamlining the review process, he said.
Right, except then all those pesky exonerations, which pro-death penalty advocates argue proves the system actually works, would never be found. And his assertion that death sentences are declining because murder rates are declining is also false. Homicide rates have remained static the past decade (fluctuating between 5.5 and 5.7) while the number of death sentences handed down has dropped more than two-thirds.

Perhaps we could "knock a large chunk off of the cost" of pursuing the death penalty and put those millions towards something more equitable. Like preventing crime.

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