States grapple with death penalty legislation
Last week, the North Carolina Independent News reported on the state’s Racial Justice Act — which allows death row inmates to appeal their sentences if they can demonstrate racial bias in their original trials — being upheld in court. The case comes at a time when the utility of such laws has been demonstrated by a study published in the Louisiana Law Review (PDF) showing that someone convicted of killing a white victim is 2.6 times more likely to be sentenced to death than someone convicted of killing a black victim. This atmosphere of distaste for the death penalty seems to be spreading, and just a month and a half into the year, it is already becoming evident in several legislatures across the country. Legislative opposition to the death penalty has recently arisen in at least three states.
There has been a moratorium on the death penalty in Maryland for more than four years, ever since the state Court of Appeals ruled in December 2006 that the state improperly adopted its death penalty procedures. However, the death penalty (and the five men on death row in Maryland) has remained in limbo since then. Last week, a coalition of Democrats in the state House of Delegates and the state Senate submitted a bill that would outlaw the death penalty outright. In the past, Republicans in the Maryland Senate have quashed such legislation, but its supporters are hoping this time will be different. Governor Martin O’Malley (D), who has made no secret of his opposition to the death penalty, has in the past pushed for a repeal and would certainly sign the bill into law if it makes it through the Senate.
In Illinois, a death penalty repeal bill made it through both the House of Representatives and the Senate back at the start of the state legislative session in January. It’s been sitting on the desk of Illinois Democratic governor Pat Quinn ever since. Like Maryland, Illinois has had a moratorium on the death penalty for years now. Then-governor George Ryan issued it in 2000 as a result of evidence that Illinois had executed several innocent people in the past. Gov. Quinn has only said that he will “follow his conscience” in deciding whether to sign or veto the bill, but he has taken no action in the weeks since the bill was handed up to him. He has until March 18 to make a decision.
Meanwhile, the Montana state Senate passed a bill Monday outlawing the death penalty. The bill has to go back to the Senate floor for another vote as part of Senate operating procedure, after which it will be sent to the House for a vote. Things look grim for Montana’s repeal law as compared to Maryland’s or Illinois’s, however, following massive gains for Montana Republicans in November. Those elections gave Republicans a full two-thirds majority in the state House of Representatives, up from a 50-50 split between Democrats and Republicans in Montana’s House.
While these three and other states continue to grapple with the death penalty, it does remain legal in 35 states, as well as in federal and military cases. Yet even in states where it is legal, even uncontroversial, the death penalty has been meted out with increasing rarity in recent years. Virginia, once second only Texas in the number of people executed per year, only sentenced one man to death in 2010, in a retrial of a 1998 case following the discovery of new DNA evidence. Even Texas was down to 333 people on death row by the end of 2010, the lowest number since 1991. Overall, 112 people were sentenced to death in the U.S. in 2010. This is the lowest total since the death penalty was reinstituted in the U.S. in 1976.
What accounts for this drop? One cynical explanation may simply be a matter of supplies. Hospira, the last U.S. manufacturer of the lethal injection drug sodium thiopental, ceased production earlier this year over concerns that it would be held criminally or civilly liable if its sodium thiopental were used abroad in executions. Last year, a deal was uncovered between Arizona and a British supplier of the drug. It is illegal in the UK to knowingly sell drugs that will be used to execute people.
Another possible explanation is at least slightly more generous to human nature: According to the National Archive of Criminal Justice Data, the violent crime rate has plummeted in recent decades, standing in 2009 at half its 1990 rate. (Though incarceration rates have simultaneously skyrocketed; there were nearly five times as many Americans in prison in 2009 [PDF] as there were in 1980 [PDF], and the U.S. continues to have the highest incarceration rate [PDF] in the world. More than half of the almost 2.3 million people in prison or jail in the U.S. are nonviolent offenders, according to most recent data.)
Whatever the cause, use of the death penalty has been in decline for ten years now and the drop shows no sign of stopping.