A Slow Death: Capital Punishment Hangs On

By Bole, William | Commonweal, June 19, 2009 | Go to article overview

A Slow Death: Capital Punishment Hangs On


Bole, William, Commonweal


On January 17, 1977, spree killer Gary Gilmore was taken to an abandoned cannery behind the state prison in Utah. Strapped to an old wooden office chair, he stared out at a black curtain with five slits made for the deer rifles held behind the partition by five anonymous prison guards. Gilmore had famously clamored for his own execution and when asked for his final words, simply said, "Let's do it." He became the first prisoner to be executed in America after the Supreme Court's rehabilitation of the death penalty a year earlier.

Eight months after the bullets tore through Gilmore's heart, France

raised the blade of its guillotine one last time, beheading a Tunisian immigrant who had sexually tortured and strangled a young French nanny. Soon after, Western Europe became a region where governments do not kill in order to demonstrate that killing is wrong. Scores of countries elsewhere, from Mexico and the Philippines to Cambodia and Rwanda, have also forsaken punishment by death. The United States has chosen a different course. Lethal injections, electrocutions, and other means of judicial death have become an eye-catching case of American exceptionalism, but there are signs that the country is finally becoming less exceptional in this regard.

Last year, state and federal courts put 37 inmates to death, the lowest number since 1994. This year, there has been a spike in executions--30 altogether, 16 in Texas alone--attributable largely to a backlog caused by a series of stays issued by the Supreme Court as it considered the constitutionality of lethal injections, stays lifted once the Court reaffirmed this preferred method of execution in April of last year. Still, the trend is clear. Executions have dipped steadily since the high-water mark of 98 a decade ago; death sentences have dropped dramatically from 328 in 1994 to 111 this past year. Capital punishment is in slow decline.

A number of states are thinking of shuttering their death houses entirely. With the most fanfare, New Mexico repealed its death-penalty statute in March, a year and three months after New Jersey had lifted its statute (New York, the only other state to abolish the death penalty in recent times, did so by court order in 2004). Following New Mexico's repeal, the state's Catholic Democratic governor, Bill Richardson, met briefly with Pope Benedict in April before being feted, together with Archbishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe, at a ceremony in the Roman Colosseum, where the nighttime illumination turns from white to gold each time a death sentence is commuted or a jurisdiction outlaws the practice. (The events were orchestrated by the Sent' Egidio Community, a lay Catholic association of special note in the international campaign to stamp out capital punishment.)

Last month in Colorado, an uprising against the death penalty was put down by a one-vote margin in the state senate, after taking the house by the same margin. Later in the month, a bill to abolish capital punishment cleared the Connecticut legislature, only to await veto by Governor M. Jodi Rell. In March, an effort to get rid of the death penalty in Maryland resulted in one of the most restrictive death-penalty laws in the country. Repeal movements have launched promisingly in Illinois, New Hampshire, and Kansas.

By most accounts, the machinery of capital punishment in the United States has slowed down primarily due to fears that innocent people are being fed into it. Since 1973, 133 death-row inmates have been exonerated; over the past decade, there have been on average five exonerations per year, thanks largely to the evidentiary wonders of DNA. With state budgets in crisis, the costs of death have been weighed as well. In Maryland, for instance, partly because of appeals and delays, cases that result in a death sentence cost an average of $3 million each, nearly three times the cost of cases where prosecutors do not seek the death penalty, according to a report in March by the Urban Institute. …

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