Decline of the Death Penalty

Jan 30, 2012

Back in the early to mid 90’s, courts were imposing well over 300 death sentences every year, but for the past 15 years that number’s been going down, and last year there were only 78 cases that ended with a call for capital punishment.  David Bruck directs the Virginia Capital Case Clearinghouse at Washington and Lee University.    He says capital cases are far more complex, take much longer and cost at least ten times as much to prosecute:

“To pick a jury that is capable of hearing a death penalty case, there has to be a very elaborate winnowing process where people’s attitudes about the death penalty get explored.  All of that is time consuming, and as a result a capital trial can be 3, 4, 5, 6 times longer than the very same case if it was tried without the death penalty.”And then there’s the fact that DNA evidence has shown people are often wrongly convicted.“The small number of cases in which there is DNA has revealed a much greater error rate than we ever thought possible.”In the last four years, he adds, four more states have decided not to impose the death penalty, and the U.S. Supreme Court has chipped away at the number of cases where capital punishment can be imposed:“First the court essentially said that it can only be imposed on murderers and not in rape cases, and more recently they’ve said it can’t even be imposed in child rape cases where the victim is not murdered.  The court has said that it can’t be imposed on people with mental retardation.  They have said that it can’t be imposed on people who commit the crime  before their 18th birthday.”Even in Virginia, which has historically trailed Texas as the nation’s leading executioner, there have been just two death sentences handed down in the last four years.  Bruck says prosecutors are recognizing that life without parole is enough to keep the public safe – and studies show the death penalty does not deter crime.  What’s more, murder victims’ families are not always in favor of executing the killer.

“For a long time people thought that seeking the death penalty and having an execution might in some way help people deal with the horrible trauma of having a loved one murdered, and while that’s a very understandable feeling, it has tended for many, many people not to be true.” What often happens is that appeals drag on through the years, bringing constant reminders, and sometimes, after all that, a judge rules in the defendants’ favor. Finally, there may be some recognition that the death penalty is applied in racist ways:“Race has always been part of the story of the death penalty, and in fact the modern death penalty system was largely created as a judicial substitute for lynching. In the early 20th century, when there was a terrible plague of lynching in the southern and southwestern states, the country reasoned that if we centralized the use of the death penalty and employed it more, that maybe the number of lynchings would go down, and perhaps that is true.  There is a lot of research that shows there’s a sort of an overlay that parts of the country that used to rely on lynching now use the death penalty a lot, and where lynching was unknown, the death penalty is now unknown. In recent years, research has shown that the race of the murder victim is one of the most important determinants.  That is to say it’s not what you do.  It’s the skin color of the person you do it to that has an enormous impact on the likelihood that a given case is going to result in the death penalty,”And in keeping with the trend away from executing killers, Bruck says, governors are granting clemency more often than before.