Tuesday, December 16, 2008

America's odd institution

The death penalty continues to teeter under its own weight.

On Friday, the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment released its final report. While not unanimous, the commission's verdict was clear- the death penalty must go. By a vote of 13-9, the commission recommended repeal of the ultimate punishment in Maryland.

The commission found that:
  • The death penalty is expensive, even more expensive than life without parole
  • There is geographical bias in how Maryland carries out capital punishment. Similar crimes committed in different jurisdictions do not have equal punishment.
  • There is racial bias in Maryland's death penalty. Intentional or not, the race of the defendant and the race of the victim play a role in death sentencing.

In response, columnist Dan Rodricks of The Baltimore Sun said:
In the report from the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment, the people of this state and their elected representatives have all the evidence needed to abolish the death penalty, once and for all, in the next session of the General Assembly.

But even more than that, the report presents the state with a chance to reform its criminal justice system by diverting funds from the costly and ineffective death penalty into law enforcement, juvenile intervention, medical therapies and educational and vocational services for inmates - things that, unlike capital punishment, might actually do some good.

One year ago, New Jersey became the first state in 40 years to repeal the death penalty via legislation. Maryland might be next. And soon Pennsylvania will be nearly surrounded by abolition states. If MD goes, Delaware and Ohio will be Pennsylvania's only neighbors with capital punishment.

On Monday, The Star Ledger of Newark looked at abolition in New Jersey, a year on. The article makes clear that repeal of the death penalty has not impeded the pursuit of justice in the state.

These quotes jumped out at me:
"I don't think it's made much of a difference at all other than that some of the cases that were languishing out there are now getting tried," said Richard Pompelio, executive director of the New Jersey Crime Victims Law Center. "The important thing for crime victims is that the process have an end, and with the death penalty there never was an end."


(Essex County prosecutor Paula) Dow said repealing the death penalty also freed prosecutors from the burden of pursuing death penalty cases in lengthy, expensive trials and prolonged appeals.

"It was a very big drain on the limited resources of law enforcement," she said. "There were long delays in the resolution of the cases, multiple appeals and very high costs associated with the handling of the litigation."

Finally, the Death Penalty Information Center released its year-end report last week and once again reports that executions and death sentences are down, even from last year's numbers, which were the lowest numbers in the modern era of the death penalty (post-1976).

As noted in an editorial by The Beaver County Times, the low executions might be a result of the national moratorium that was in place earlier this year as SCOTUS considered a challenge to the lethal injection method (a challenge that was ultimately defeated). But the continued drop in capital sentences shows that juries just are not comfortable dealing out death.

The Times notes:
America’s love affair with the death penalty may be starting to wane.


A majority of Americans still favor the death penalty. However, the United States might be reaching the tipping point when it comes to capital punishment.

A drop in violent crime is one reason. Another factor is that several states have given juries the right to impose life-without-parole sentences instead of the death penalty, and more juries are opting to do so.

Two other reasons are the growing number of exonerations because of DNA evidence — and not just in cases involving the death penalty — and increasing public awareness of the unreliability of eyewitness testimony. These factors have undercut confidence in sentencing, especially harsh ones like the death penalty.

Given the flaws of the criminal justice system and the real possibility that an innocent person might be executed, it is better to spare the lives of 100 murderers than it is to execute an innocent person.

It really is no longer a question of if the death penalty will be abolished. Instead, it's a question of when.

Andy in Harrisburg



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