Our Dying Death Penalty

by Diane Dimond on December 21, 2015

Lethal Injections Are Down in the U.S.

Lethal Injections Are Down in the U.S.

As much of the world is consumed with how to respond to the bloodthirsty and murderous group known as ISIS, as various ways for our troops to kill radical Islamists are contemplated, here at home the appetite for state sponsored killings is down.

It’s an interesting contrast to contemplate while studying the findings from two newly released year-end reports.  

Where the Condemned Die

Where the Condemned Die

The Death Penalty Information Center reveals that this year the death penalty was carried out in the United States far less often than, say, back in the mid-to-late 90’s when murder rates in big cities soared and there was a nationwide crack cocaine epidemic. At the peak, in 1999, there were 98 executions.  This year the number was down to 28.

Even more startling is the finding that the imposition of new death penalties has plummeted. Americans seem to be losing their collective appetite for this kind of punishment. At its peak two decades ago states and the federal government issued 315 new death sentences in one year. This year that number was 49.

Texas, the state that has traditionally held the top spot for executions (40 killed in 2000) put only 13 convicts to death this year.  There were years when Texas handed down death sentences to nearly 50 people, yet this year juries in the Lone Star state agreed to only three.

Fewer Death Sentences Now Handed Out

Fewer Death Sentences Handed Out in 2015

The Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty’s annual report highlighted Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston. It’s been the execution epicenter delivering a staggering 294 death sentences and executing more convicts than any other county in the United States. This year Harris County returned exactly no death sentences.

The pattern is also being seen in the second and third place execution states: Missouri and Georgia. In 2015, Missouri put to death 6 convicts, Georgia 5. But guess how many new capital punishment sentences they imposed this year?  Zero.

“The use of the death penalty is becoming increasingly rare and increasingly isolated in the US,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “These are not just annual blips in statistics, but reflect a broad change in attitudes.”

For the record, prosecutors in 31 states, the federal government and the U.S. military still have the right to pursue the ultimate penalty. 19 states and the District of Columbia have outlawed capital punishment.

Death Penalty Cases Costs Can Reach Millions

Cost of Death Penalty Cases Can Reach Millions

So, why the shift away from the death penalty? Might be the high legal costs attached to such prosecutions – up to $3 million for each case, from trial through the lengthy appeals process. Prisoners have been known to languish for decades, filing appeal after appeal, as they await their ultimate fate. Sometimes, the state in which they were sentenced to die decides to outlaw the practice.

American juries could be deciding against death because they see a racial disparity in sentencing.

Perhaps it was the six death row prisoners exonerated this year. The states of Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and Texas were on track to execute each of the six until they were all cleared of all charges. (Note: 156 convicts have been freed from death row since 1973.) Wrongful convictions are rare but they have surely occurred.

Maybe we’re changing our minds about the death penalty because worldwide suppliers of the necessary lethal injection drugs are refusing to sell to U.S. prisons.

Conceivably, we have been moved by the shame of global condemnation of our policy that executes fellow human beings.

Much of the World Condemns the Practice

Much of the World Condemns the Practice

So, how many more years will it take before we come to the conclusion that carrying out the death penalty is too expensive, too randomly applied, too fraught with potential evidentiary mistakes?

I don’t have a precise answer to that question. Who knows if there will ever be a time that we decide to do away with capital punishment in this country. Certainly, there will be more heinous cases of mass murder for which prosecutors will be urged, again, to seek the ultimate punishment.

But even now, in this time of increased fear about our national security and the passionate calls for vengeance against terrorists – the trend for deadly retribution against our own is obviously waning.


Diane Dimond December 21, 2015 at 1:40 pm

Facebook Friend Carmen Matthews writes:

“Wow! It costs $3,000,000 to pursue an execution on a death penalty case? Besides the cost, racial disparity, wrongful convictions, drug companies turning against the prisons and global shame associated with executing human beings, I’m wondering if more people see that it is a bigger punishment to have to live in a prison, reminded everyday of the consequences of committing crimes.”

Diane Dimond December 21, 2015 at 1:41 pm

Facebook Friend Tricia Minahan Marchlik writes:

“So few people have punishments that are so severe and they continue of offend. Many don’t go to jail because there’s “no room” for them in the prisons. Robbers still rob, Murders still kill and Rapists still rape. They’ve gotten much better now with DNA and other investigative techniques to know who did what…Our country is way behind the times with punishment because of this incredibly stupid desire to do things so PC. The judges are pretty much public enemy #2…the killers are #1. And what’s with this “affluence” plea??? Are they freakin’ kidding??? he was so rich and didn’t know he was doing wrong? Bring back the death penalty, and Goddamn it, use it. None of this appeal after appeal… Scott Petersen is still sitting in jail after killing is beautiful wife and unborn son. Drew Peterson is still in jail after being found guilty of killing his wife, and isn’t his first wife’s death a mystery, too???? The Boston Marathon loser will be around for along time, too. Time for a change!”

Diane Dimond December 21, 2015 at 2:48 pm

Facebook Friend Drew Rutberg writes:

“We simply have to understand the death penalty. It isn’t now nor was it ever an effective deterrent of violent crime. It is the the strongest punishment the state can give for violent crime and some people are very deserving of it.”

Joya Lord December 21, 2015 at 2:50 pm

This is an interesting dilemma, and one that certainly will not be resolved with one article or the ensuing comments, but thanks for once again starting a thoughtful dialogue, Diane. Whether we agree or disagree on capital punishment as an option, I think that most of us will agree that we would be much better off if we could prevent crime from happening in the first place. Punishment truly is a last resort, and an expensive one, whether it is in the form of the death penalty or imprisonment. It is time for a change, but those changes need to happen much earlier in the chain of events.

Diane Dimond December 22, 2015 at 5:53 pm

Facebook Friend Margee Estelle Gearhart writes:

“Too many have been convicted that years later proved to be innocent. I would rather let them rot in jail for life.”

Diane Dimond December 22, 2015 at 5:55 pm

Facebook Friend Bill Voinovich writes:

“Let them appeal all they want, but the thing we have to do is make SURE there’s NO WAY the guy’s innocent….
The ones that commit crimes evil enough to warrant the death penalty HAVE to KNOW there will be SEVERE and FINAL consequences for their actions, and that DOESN’T mean spending the rest of your life being supported by the taxpayers…..”

Diane Dimond December 22, 2015 at 5:55 pm

Facebook Friend Nancy Robel writes:

” Been to the prisons or jails, lately? We used to call Las Colinas Women’s Jail the “Country Club”. (They had a pool). Prisoners are usually provided every luxury that you could get if you were on the outside (and probably much more). Three square meals a day, health benefits, a roof over your head, phone calls, mail service, physical activity, visits from friends and family and conjugal visits, with the added benefit of not having to pay for any of it. I bet they don’t give their victims a second thought, except when their parole hearing is approaching and they have to get a few repenting church services under their belt. Regardless, unless you experience the emotional wreckage on surviving family members of a heinous crime, you don’t fully understand how the death penalty seems like the only fair punishment for the acts committed.”

Diane Dimond December 22, 2015 at 5:55 pm

Facebook Friend Bill Lord writes:

“In my opinion, the reason for our declining support of the death penalty is our overwhelming distrust of the judicial system. Too many prosecutors and Attorneys General (and even the DOJ) are more interested in getting a conviction or furthering an agenda than ensuring that justice is served.”

Diane Dimond December 22, 2015 at 6:02 pm

Noozhawk Reader AutoCoalition writes:

“After reading this article it’s clear that Diane Dimond supports the efforts of convicted killers like Richard Allen Davis (the creep who kidnapped, raped and murdered Polly Klaas) to overturn their death sentences.”

Diane Dimond December 22, 2015 at 6:02 pm

Actually, AutoCoalition, I am the only reporter to have ever interviewed Richard Allen Davis on camera. I came away believing he was THE most evil person I had ever encountered. When I asked him if he realized he was “The most hated man in America right now,” he threw his head back and laughed like a hyena. I felt physically sick to my stomach. All this is to highlight how wrong your conclusion is about me and what I think about overturning his sentence. ~ DD

Diane Dimond December 22, 2015 at 6:04 pm

Noozhawk Reader 966399A responds to AutoCoalition:

“This is, unfortunately, wrong headed. First, there are some who equate life with cost/money. Second, mistakes (many) are made and this is a terrible consequence of an imperfect system. Third, if murder or the taking of life is unsupportable, how is it that the state acquires the right to take a life. Is this not a form of murder sheltered under a false moral/ethical/legal premise? Who among us is licensed to take a life and/or to “pull the switch” to take one. The argument that killing in the name of the state provides “closure” is stupid and without basis in any moral system. It is fact that the states that have the earliest history of capital punishment have the highest murder rate. Thus, the punishment is in no way a deterrent. If there is absolute evidence of guilt, then the miscreant should be taken out of society and given life in prison in solitary confinement without parole. There are voices that say we use even this punishment in such a way that the perpetrator has a good life inside prison walls. Food, shelter and no contact with other humans may even be considered “cruel and unusual punishment” under the constitution. If so, then there are other conditions that can be imposed. So, please tell me where the right to kill in the name of the state derives its legitimacy and moral license.”

Diane Dimond December 22, 2015 at 6:05 pm

Noozhawk Reader Onceler’s Revenge responds to AutoCoalition

“I don’t think it’s support for the convicted so much as it is seeking to take away justice and closure for the families of the victims in exchange for a personal feeling of internal warmth and fuzziness.”

Diane Dimond December 23, 2015 at 10:57 am

Linked-In Connection vivek bhatt writes:

“No not at all. capital punishment should be there always. right now the entire world is suffering from terrorism and if there will be no capital punishment like death this will grow more as the common public will have no fear of that punishment and it may possible that terrorist slipper cell may start recruiting youth by brain washing technics. time to make judiciary and internal security system more powerful. why to be afraid when someone has not done anything wrong ? if somebody has done something cruel act , something which is against the humanity, barbaric work you must hang to death.”

Diane Dimond December 23, 2015 at 10:58 am

Linked In connection Nicolay Vinkler writes:

“The countries that tend to find themselves in the top-tier of the best countries to live in year after year by the UN, practise a humane, liberal and progressive attityde to crime & punishment; “rehab” is the word of the day!”

Diane Dimond December 23, 2015 at 5:37 pm

Facebook Friend Nancy Robel writes:

“DNA and fingerprint advances and databases have the potential of eliminating false convictions. Old cases are being overturned because they are finally getting the biological evidence, that was stored, tested with the advanced technology. I do trust the judicial system, with the exception of how juries are selected. That may need a little work.”

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