The Death of the Death Penalty

Article excerpt

Byline: Scott Turow

The courts and public are moving toward repeal but not fast enough for inmates like Troy Davis.

The executions last week of Troy Davis in Georgia and Lawrence Russell Brewer in Texas, as well as the United States Supreme Court's recent decisions to stay the execution of two other Texas inmates, Duane Buck and Cleve Foster, have pushed the death penalty back into the national spotlight. Davis's case, which inspired protests around the world, and Brewer's, whose crime earned him universal loathing, remind us of the intense and conflicting emotions that continue to surround the vexed issue of capital punishment.

The truth is that the death penalty in the U.S. is withering, albeit at a pace too slow for many. That may seem like a paradoxical observation coming after a week in which two men were put to death and two others still stand hours away from execution, but there is no doubting that momentum is moving against capital punishment.

In the past seven years, four states (New Jersey, New Mexico, Illinois, and New York) have abandoned it. Even in the 34 states where executions remain lawful, death sentences have grown rarer. There were 46 executions in the U.S. last year, compared with 85 a decade before. From 2000 to 2010, juries across the country imposed only half the number of death sentences they had in the 1990s.

Yet some might say that someone like Brewer surely deserves the death penalty. Brewer made no bones about the fact that he was one of three white supremacists who kidnapped James Byrd because he was black and dragged him for two miles behind their pickup truck. It was a murder of unique savagery. Some Americans believe in the death penalty "because the victims deserve it," yet Byrd's son's opposition to Brewer's execution exposes this dubious rationale.

Troy Davis's case, which brought protests from the likes of former President Jimmy Carter and a worldwide letter-writing campaign, demonstrates even more growing popular sentiment against executions. Nothing has sapped Americans' enthusiasm for the death penalty more than the rising tide of exonerations. In my experience as a prosecutor, defense lawyer, and a member of the Illinois Commission on Capital Punishment, American moralism, far more than questionable arguments about deterrence or the needs of surviving loved ones, has propelled the death penalty. …