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February 3, 2009

Interesting time for Time's discussion of death's demise

Time magazing has this new piece on death penalty developments, headlined "The Tide Shifts Against the Death Penalty."  Here are a few excerpts:

If there were such a thing as a golden age of capital punishment in America, it peaked in 1999. There were 98 executions in the U.S. that year, the highest number since 1976, when the Supreme Court, which had overturned all death penalty laws in 1972, began approving them again. For most of the 1990s the number of death sentences handed down annually by courts had been humming along in the range of 280 to 300 and above.  And it had been years since the Supreme Court had done much to specify whom states could execute and how they could do it.

A decade later, capital punishment has a lot less life in it.  Last year saw just 37 executions in the U.S., with only 111 death sentences handed down.  Although 36 states and the Federal Government still have death penalty laws on the books, the practice of carrying out executions is limited almost entirely to the South, where all but two of last year's executions took place.  (The exceptions were both in Ohio.)  Even in Texas, still the state leader in annual executions, only 10 men and one woman were sentenced to death last year, the lowest number since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.  In recent years the Supreme Court has voted to forbid the execution of juveniles and the mentally retarded, and it banned using the death penalty for crimes that did not involve killings....

Even more significantly, where states once hurried to adopt death penalty laws, the pendulum now appears to be swinging in the other direction.  In 2007 New Jersey became the first state in 40 years to abolish its death penalty.  In that same year repeal bills were narrowly defeated in Montana, Nebraska and New Mexico, all of which are revisiting the issue this year.  Now the focus is on Maryland.  After years of failed attempts by death penalty opponents to bring a repeal bill to a vote in the state legislature, Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley is personally sponsoring this year's version, promising that he will fight to have the legislature pass it during the current 90-day session.

As regular readers know, I have been documenting the death penalty's decline for quite sometime.  But this Time article comes out, coincidentally, when death is making a bit of a comeback.  The last few weeks of January 2009 brought seven executions (five of which were in Texas), the most in any concentrated period since June 2007.  In addition, there are two executions scheduled for tomorrow (one in Tennessee and one in Texas).  Also, Virginia's legislature recently voted to expand that state's death penalty law.

In addition, today was the swearing in of Eric Holder as Attorney General.  Though AG Holder's track record on the death penalty is mixed, he was deputy AG in the Clinton Administration during what Time calls "the golden age of capital punishment in America."  Though lots of forces contributed to the death penalty's rise in the 1990s and its more recent decline, our new Attorney General may not be nonplussed if execution rates and death sentences return to rates of the so-called golden age.

Some recent related posts:

UPDATE:  As detailed in this local article, Tennessee executed Steve Henley early Wednesday morning.  Here is the start of the local coverage:

Convicted murderer Steve Henley met his death at the hands of the state with a smile on his face and maintained his innocence even in his final moments amid the cries and prayers of his family.  “As I have said ever since this happened, I didn’t kill them,” Henley said during his final words of his victims, Fred and Edna Stafford. “I hope they can rest easier after this procedure is done.”

February 3, 2009 at 03:43 PM | Permalink

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