Fewer people were sentenced to death in 2015 than any any point since 1976

22 Dec 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Death sentences in Texas in 2015 hit a four decade low.

The high cost of capital punishment and the option of life in prison without parole has led Texas to issue three death sentences in 2015, the lowest since the U.S.

The number of people executed in the United States continues its decline, with 2015 being the lowest on record since 1991, a fact attributable to states sentencing capital punishment with less frequency, defendants gaining access to better legal counsel, and lethal drugs becoming harder to source. As of Dec. 15, 28 inmates had been executed this year, according to The Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), a nonprofit organization that opposes the death penalty and keeps data on the policy.

The numbers reflect a steady decline in death sentences over the past 15 years and a broad shift in public attitudes that has made capital punishment increasingly rare, said Robert Dunham, the group’s executive director. Additionally, 49 criminal defendants received death sentences this year, a decline of about a third from 2014 and the lowest it has been since the early 1970s, The Associated Press reports. Next, consider the dwindling rate of death sentences—most striking in Texas, which accounts for more than a third of all executions since (after a hiatus) the Supreme Court reinstated the practice in 1976. The costs of a death penalty prosecution, including appeals and investigations, can be at least double those of housing an inmate for life and are usually far higher, according to data cited by the Marshall Project, a nonprofit newsgroup that focuses on U.S. criminal justice.

While capital punishment remains legal in 31 states, only six states accounted for all the executions this year — Florida, Missouri, Georgia, Oklahoma, Texas and Virginia. A legal fight over drugs used in a series of botched lethal injections contributed to the continued decline in the number of executions in the country this year. Jeb Bush, a Republican presidential candidate—who, as governor of Florida, oversaw 21 executions—has acknowledged feeling “conflicted” about capital punishment. A lethal injection drug shortage persisted into 2015 resulting in several states, including Ohio and Nebraska, halting executions for the foreseeable future. In Arkansas, a judge put a stop to executing eight inmates during a legal dispute over the state’s ability to keep secret the names of manufacturers and sellers supplying the state with lethal drugs.

Contrast that stance with her husband’s return to Arkansas, during his own campaign in 1992, for the controversial execution of a mentally impaired murderer. This despite the fact that, to serve in a capital trial, a juror has to be willing in principle to hand down a death sentence. (Actually doing so can be traumatic: Stewart Dotts “had always considered myself a reasonably tough guy”, but serving on a jury that passed a death sentence in New Jersey gave him many sleepless nights. “It’s an unfair burden to place on ordinary citizens,” Mr Dotts concludes.) The widely available alternative of life without parole—which offers the certainty that a defendant can never be released—helps to explain that trend.

So does the growing willingness of jurors, in their private deliberations, to weigh murderers’ backgrounds and mental illnesses; ditto the greater skill with which defence lawyers, generally better resourced and trained than in the past, muster that mitigating evidence. The renegades who have botched capital cases—by suppressing evidence, rigging juries or concentrating on black defendants—have dragged it into disrepute. Then there is the attritional legal rigmarole: the killer would smile at the victims’ families at court appearances, Ms Webb says; her mother is obliged to relive the trauma at each fresh hearing.

To avoid that protracted agony, says James Farren, district attorney of Randall County in Texas, “a healthy percentage” of families now ask prosecutors to eschew capital punishment. Katherine Scardino says that, on being appointed in Texas, “the first thing I do is, I go start spending the state’s money”—on psychologists, investigators, the lavish cast of capital trials.

They create an extra injustice: just as it was once unfair for death sentences to be reserved for the poorest criminals with the worst lawyers, so it is equally unjust for some to be spared on account of being tried in poor jurisdictions. Obtaining small quantities of drugs for lethal injection, long the standard method, might seem an easy task in the world’s richest country; but export bans in Europe, American import rules and the decision by domestic firms to discontinue what were less-than-lucrative sales lines has strangled the supply. As Dale Baich, a public defender there, puts it, with several others the state was recently caught in “a drug deal gone bad”, after it tried to buy a deadly compound from a middleman in India; the batch was impounded by federal officials at Phoenix airport. Should it become impractical, it is unclear whether Americans will stomach a reversion to gorier methods such as gassing and shooting: they are much less popular, according to polls.

He cited many longstanding failings: arbitrariness (its use varying widely by geography and defendants’ profiles); the delays; the questionable deterrent and retributive value; all those exonerations (Mr Breyer speculated that wrongful convictions were especially likely in capital cases, because of the pressure to solve them). As decades of litigation attest—and as the rest of the Western world has resolved—killing prisoners is fundamentally inconsistent with the precepts of a law-governed, civilised society.

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