The Contradictions of American Capital Punishment

By Franklin E. Zimring | Go to book overview

7
The No-Win 1990s

THE 1990S should have been the decade when the death penalty was restored as a normal part of the criminal justice process. The decade began in the fifteenth year after the Supreme Court of the United States had authorized a resumption of executions in its 1976 decisions. All the major systemic constitutional challenges to the death penalty had been rejected by 1988, and a steady stream of death sentences since the 1970s had built up a backlog of more than 2000 prisoners awaiting execution. By 1990, thirty-seven states had recent death penalty legislation, and thirty-four of those states had prisoners on death row. Yet only thirteen of the thirtyseven death penalty states had conducted an execution by the end of 1989. It appeared that a determined U.S. Supreme Court and strong pro—death penalty public opinion would end this log jam in the 1990s.

The 1990s also should have been the decade when the huge regional and state-to-state differences in execution rates evened out. Up through 1989, nine of the first thirteen states to conduct executions had been Southern, but the large number of condemned prisoners in many Northern and border metropolitan states provided powerful evidence by the start of the 1990s that executions would soon be spread more evenly over the threequarters of American states that had reaffirmed their support for executions. Was this the decade when execution became business as usual for criminal justice?

What happened, instead, in the 1990s was a peculiar mix of expected developments and policy surprises, a pattern that has not been easy for

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