The Reemergence of Political Abolitionism
Although it was not clear at the time, 1983 was a turning point in the national struggle over capital punishment in the United States. The justices of the U.S. Supreme Court retreated from their involvement in the procedural details of capital sentencing. As a result, many of the available grounds for lifesaving appeals began to evaporate and the pace of executions started to climb gradually from year to year. These were bad omens for a movement that had for almost 20 years leaned heavily on the skills of lawyers to combat the state-sanctioned extermination of convicted killers. But the legal setbacks of the period from 1983 to the present did not diminish the intensity of the abolitionist movement. Rather, they stimulated a change in its strategic direction. Litigators are still involved, to be sure. But now they struggle to save individual lives rather than mount coordinated challenges to the institution of capital punishment itself, as they did in the 1960s and 1970s. The broader attack has shifted from the courts to the arenas of legislative politics and public persuasion. Activists have emphasized new issues, including the danger of fatal miscarriages of justice, the fiscal and system costs of the death penalty for the criminal justice system, and the unique ethical dilemmas of juvenile and mentally retarded offenders. The shift has been fraught with difficulties -- few abolitionists expect the nation to stage its final execution any time soon -- but it has not been totally without signs of success. Cracks in public support for the death penalty have been exposed but not fully exploited. A backlog of death-sentenced inmates is building, one which dwarfs that of the 1960s moratorium years, and the willingness of Americans to endorse really large numbers of executions every year is still very much in doubt.
In the first part of this chapter, we will explore the Supreme Court's change of heart about the special legal status of the death penalty and the impact of that change on the fates of the men and the handful of women on death row. The chapter will then consider the adjustments that major ADP organizations made to the changed environment they were up against, including the develop