Enthusiasm for the death penalty continued to ebb in the United States during 2010. As Christmas approaches a season of quiet in America's execution chambers, as death takes a holiday there have been 46 inmates executed, down from 52 in 2009.
That's fewer than half the number put to death in the peak year of 1999, when 98 prisoners walked the last mile. Meanwhile, the number of new death sentences imposed in 2010 remained near the lowest level in 35 years.
Statistics collected by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) show that use of the death penalty was down across the country even in Texas, which has carried out more than a third of all U.S. executions since the modern death penalty was instituted in 1976. Seventeen Texas inmates were executed in 2010, matching the lowest number in a year since 1996, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. That's a reduction of nearly 60% compared to the busiest year for the Texas executioner, when 40 inmates were put to death in 2000.
Perhaps no statistic better illustrates the decline in the use of the death penalty than the fact that no death sentences zero were imposed by Virginia's courts in 2010. The commonwealth is a bastion of capital punishment, second only to Texas in the frequency of executions. Missouri, which ranks fifth in the number of executions in the modern era, also sent no new inmates to death row.
Experts offer a number of explanations for the diminished use of the death penalty in the United States. DPIC's annual report, published on Tuesday, (see www.deathpenaltyinfo.org), points to at least four factors:
Shifts in public opinion: "The problems and risks of the death penalty have convinced the majority of Americans it is time to consider replacing this punishment with alternative sentences," the report asserts. This is based on DPIC's own recent polling, which found that only about 1 of 3 Americans prefers capital punishment to the alternative of life-without-parole especially if the convicted prisoners are put to work earning money for a victim-restitution fund. This compares to overwhelming majorities in favor of the death penalty in the 1990s.
Tight government budgets: Because of the cost of separate sentencing hearings, and lengthy appeals, death sentences are far more expensive than life sentences for aggravated murder. Forced by the recession to tighten their belts, prosecutors and opinion leaders are souring on the costly punishment. Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller, for example, recently called on state lawmakers to weigh the high cost of capital punishment. Small counties can't afford to take on death cases, he said, which raises the problem of unequal justice depending on whether a murder occurs in a small town or a big city. In Illinois, a government commission reported that the state had spent $100 million assisting small communities with death penalty cases over the past seven years a period in which the state's budget deficit gaped, and no Illinois prisoners were executed.
Risk of error: Public confidence in the death penalty has been shaken by the use of DNA evidence to prove that innocent defendants can indeed be sentenced to death. Of the 261 inmates exonerated by DNA evidence unearthed by The Innocence Project, 17 had been sent to death row.
These cases in turn make other claims of innocence more credible. In Texas, former death row inmate Anthony Graves was freed earlier this year after 16 years in prison. A special prosecutor declared that "not one piece of credible evidence" connected Graves to the crime. Nationwide, according to DPIC, the number of death-sentenced prisoners who have been exonerated is now 138.
More disturbingly, strong evidence now exists that even with all its safeguards, the American death penalty system can fail at the most fundamental level leading to the execution of at least one innocent man. Cameron Willingham was put to death in Texas in 2004 for the murder of his three children in a house fire. A state commission on forensic science acknowledged this year that investigators had no scientific basis for accusing Willingham of arson.
Uneven, and unpredictable, application: The use of the death penalty varies widely by region. Three out of four executions in 2010 took place in the South. California once again led the nation in new death sentences and once again went all year without a single execution. At year's end, the death row population in the Golden State hovered around 700. Florida, with some 400 inmates on death row, carried out just one execution in 2010. Pennsylvania, with some 220 death row inmates, executed none.
Nationwide, according to DPIC, some 3,260 prisoners were sentenced to die as the year came to a close. Hundreds have been on death row more than 25 years. The average time spent on death row by the 46 inmates executed in 2010 was 14 years.
One other factor may do more than any of the rest to explain the declining hold of capital punishment on the American justice system: The steep decline in violent crime. Preliminary statistics from the FBI indicate that the murder rate for the first half of 2010 once again fell sharply, dropping by more than 7%.
If, as the DPIC annual report suggests, Americans are more willing to consider alternatives to capital punishment, the fact that they are undeniably safer may be the best explanation of all.