Tag Archives: Capital punishment

Shifts seen in support for death penalty

Electric chair

Electric chair (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By KEVIN JOHNSON
c. 2012 USA Today
Reprinted with permission

WASHINGTON (RNS) The campaign to abolish the death penalty has been freshly invigorated this month in a series of actions that supporters say represents increasing evidence that America may be losing its taste for capital punishment.

As early as this week, Gov. Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, is poised to sign

a bill repealing the death penalty in Connecticut. A separate proposal

The Gas Chamber at New Mexico Penitentiary, Sa...

The Gas Chamber at New Mexico Penitentiary, Santa Fe. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

has qualified for the November ballot in California that would shut down the largest death row in the country and convert inmates’ sentences to life without parole.

Academics, too, have recently taken indirect aim: The National Research Council concluded last week that there have been no reliable studies to show that capital punishment is a deterrent to homicide.

That study, which does not take a position on capital punishment, follows a Gallup Poll last fall that found support for the death penalty had slipped to 61 percent nationally, the lowest level in 39 years.

Even in Texas, which has long projected the harshest face of the U.S. criminal justice system, there has been a marked shift. Last year, the state’s 13 executions marked the lowest number in 15 years. And this year, the state — the perennial national leader in executions — is scheduled to carry out just 10.

Capital punishment proponents say the general decline in death sentences and executions in recent years is merely a reflection of the sustained drop in violent crime, but some lawmakers and legal analysts say the numbers underscore a growing wariness of wrongful convictions.

In Texas, Dallas County alone has uncovered 30 wrongful convictions since 2001, the most of any county in the country. Former Texas Gov. Mark White, a Democrat, said he continues to support the death penalty “only in a select number of cases,” yet he says he believes that a “national reassessment” is now warranted given the stream of recent exonerations.

“I have been a proponent of the death penalty, but convicting people who didn’t commit the crime has to stop,” White said.

“There is an inherent unfairness in the system,” said former Los Angeles County district attorney Gil Garcetti, a Democrat. He added that he was “especially troubled” by mounting numbers of wrongful convictions.

A recent convert to the California anti-death-penalty campaign, Garcetti said the current system has become “obscenely expensive” and forces victims to often wait years for death row appeals to run their course. In the past 34 years in California, just 13 people have been executed as part of a system that costs $184 million per year to maintain.

“Replacing capital punishment will give victims legal finality,” Garcetti said.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment, said California’s referendum marks a potentially “historic” moment in the anti-death-penalty movement in a state that houses 22 percent of the nation’s death row prisoners.

“Repeal in California would be a huge development,” Dieter said. “Just getting it on the ballot is big.”

Nationally, Dieter said, fading arguments for capital punishment as a deterrent to homicide and mounting numbers of wrongful convictions are “turning a corner” in the debate.

Democratic state Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, a sponsor of the bill to repeal Connecticut’s death penalty, said capital punishment’s “promise to victims and taxpayers is hollow.” In Connecticut, only one person has been executed in the past 52 years.

Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, said the country’s system of capital punishment is in need of change, but not elimination. He said there is “strong motivation,” though, to fix a system that can take 20 years for offenders to reach the death chamber following conviction.

“The vast majority of states (33, not counting Connecticut) still have the possibility of the death penalty,” Burns said.

“I don’t see a blowing wind that will dramatically change that,” he added.

(Kevin Johnson writes for USA Today.)

Study says no evidence that death penalty deters crime

Some Catholics wonder if the death penalty is a priority for the U.S. hierarchy after their Respect Life Month statement made no mention of church opposition to capital punishment. Photo of San Quentin death chamber courtesy California Department of Corrections.

By KEVIN JOHNSON
c. 2012 USA Today
Reprinted with permission

WASHINGTON (RNS) In the more than three decades since the national moratorium on the death penalty was lifted, there is no reliable research to determine whether capital punishment has served as a deterrent, according to a review by the National Research Council.

The review, partially funded by the Justice Department’s National Institute of Justice, found that one of the major shortcomings in all previous studies has included “incomplete or implausible” measures of how potential murderers perceive the risk of execution as a possible consequence of their actions.

Another flaw, according to the review, is that previous research never considered the impact of lesser punishments, such as life in prison without the possibility of parole.

“Fundamental flaws in the research we reviewed make it of no use in answering the question of whether the death penalty affects homicide rates,” said Carnegie Mellon University professor Daniel Nagin, who chaired the council’s study committee.

Nagin said Wednesday (April 18) that the panel reviewed the work of “dozens” of researchers since a 1976 Supreme Court decision ended a four-year national moratorium on executions.

“We recognize that this conclusion may be controversial to some,” Nagin said, “but no one is well served by unsupportable claims about the effect of the death penalty, regardless of whether the claim is that the death penalty deters homicides, has no effect on homicide rates or actually increases homicides.”

The council’s review comes exactly a week after the Connecticut Legislature voted to abolish capital punishment for future crimes following a lengthy debate that cited a lack of evidence about deterrence among the reasons for its repeal in favor of life in prison without parole.

“For decades, we have not had a workable death penalty,” Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy said following the vote. “Going forward, we will have a system that allows us to put these people away for life, in living conditions none of us would want to experience. Let’s throw away the key and have them spend the rest of their natural lives in jail.”

Malloy has pledged to sign the legislation, which will leave 33 states with the death penalty.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which closely tracks capital punishment in the U.S., said deterrence has always been “hard to measure,” partly because of the time it often takes for states to carry out executions.

In Connecticut, for example, there are 11 people on death row, but only one person has been executed in the past 52 years.

As a result, Dieter said, the issue of deterrence has faded from the public discussion about capital punishment. It has been overtaken, he said, by such considerations as whether the death penalty remains an appropriate punishment for particularly heinous acts.

“If the death penalty is going to be justified, it has to rest on other grounds,” Dieter said.

Isaac Ehrlich, the University of Buffalo’s Department of Economics chairman, stands by his research that supports capital punishment as a deterrent to homicide.

“This is not the first time people have raised questions (about the research),” Ehrlich said, rejecting the council’s claim that prior research did not account for murderers’ considerations of the possible risks.

“A lot of murder is calculated, and people do take into account what might happen to them as a result,” he said.

(Kevin Johnson writes for USA Today.)