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Death Sentences, Executions Remain at Low Levels

According to a report released by the Death Penalty Information Center last December, there were 78 new death sentences imposed in 2011, down significantly from 104 in 2010 and the fewest new death sentences since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976.

The number of new death sentences reached its peak in 1996 when 315 prisoners were sentenced to death, and averaged 295 annually in the 1990s. Since 1996 the average number of death sentences imposed each year has decreased by about 75 percent.

Leading the way in the decline in 2011 was the state that carries out the most executions. Texas, which has averaged 34 new death sentences per year, had only 8 in 2011. Other death penalty states, including Maryland, Missouri and Indiana, had no new death sentences imposed in 2011.

The number of people sitting on death rows across the nation has also reached a new low. As of the end of 2011, the death row population nationwide was 3,251, down from 3,625 in 1999. In the years preceding 1999, the size of the death row population nationally had increased every year. But while the number of people sentenced to death on the state level has decreased, the number of prisoners on death row in the federal system has more than tripled over the past decade, from 19 to 61.

The number of executions nationwide also declined, from 46 in 2010 to 43 in 2011. However, the drop is largely attributed to problems with obtaining drugs used in lethal injections. [See: PLN, June 2011, p.1]. The economic downturn, which has focused attention on budget deficits vis-à-vis the high cost of capital punishment, is likely another contributing factor.

Additionally, James Alan Fox, a criminology professor at Northeastern University, pointed to historically low crime rates and U.S. Supreme Court decisions that prevent juveniles and mentally disabled prisoners from being executed.

“The pool of offenders who are eligible for execution is smaller,” Fox said in regard to the latter factor – although the bar is set fairly low in terms of death row prisoners with mental disabilities.

Of the 34 states with the death penalty at the end of 2011, only 13 carried out executions that year. Texas had the most executions (13), followed by Alabama (6) and Ohio (5).
Since the death penalty was reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976, a disproportionate majority of executions have occurred in the Southern states of the former Confederacy.

The State of Illinois abolished the death penalty effective July 1, 2011 following a lengthy moratorium, and the sentences of all death row prisoners were commuted to life without parole. “I have concluded that our system of imposing the death penalty is inherently flawed,” said Illinois Governor Pat Quinn. “The evidence presented to me by former prosecutors and judges with decades of experience in the criminal justice system has convinced me that it is impossible to devise a system that is consistent, that is free of discrimination on the basis of race, geography or economic circumstance, and that always gets it right.” [See: PLN, April 2012, p.36].

Also, Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber declared a moratorium on executions in that state on November 22, 2011. “I am convinced we can find a better solution that keeps society safe, supports the victims of crime and their families and reflects Oregon values,” Kitzhaber said. “I refuse to be a part of this compromised and inequitable system any longer; and I will not allow further executions while I am Governor.”

Another prominent death penalty event occurred on September 21, 2011 when Georgia executed Troy Davis, despite national and international condemnation due to strong claims of innocence in Davis’ case.

Public support for the death penalty appears to be waning. When presented with alternatives, 61 percent of the respondents in a 2011 Gallup poll said they opposed the death penalty. A May 2010 poll by Lake Research Partners had similar results, and found that voters “would continue to support elected officials if they voted to replace the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole.”

Reasons cited for opposing capital punishment included fears of executing people who are innocent and the high costs associated with the death penalty. In regard to the death penalty ensnaring the innocent, the total number of death row prisoners exonerated since 1973 now stands at 140.

For example, former Texas death row prisoner Anthony Graves was freed from prison in October 2010 after serving 16 years. According to special prosecutor Kelly Sigler, “[W]e found not one piece of credible evidence that links Anthony Graves to the commission of this capital murder.... He is an innocent man.” That did not stop Texas officials from initially denying him compensation for his wrongful conviction, nor did it stop the state from hounding him for back child support that had accrued during his incarceration. [See: PLN, April 2012, p.22].

The most recent exoneration was that of Joe D’Ambrosio, an Ohio prisoner who served 23 years for murder before his habeas petition was granted and the charges against him were dismissed after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the state’s appeal in his case on January 23, 2012.

“It’s a thrill to hear this good news, but to wait 23 years for this day is inexcusable,” said Rev. Neil Kookoothe, who advocated for D’Ambrosio’s release. “Justice denied this long isn’t justice, but it also shows the system works ... even if it is too slow of a process.”
In 2011, New York Governor Mario Cuomo, former San Quentin prison warden Jeanne Woodford, and former California prosecutors Don Heller and Gil Garcetti were among notable public officials who spoke out against the death penalty.

Several prominent former corrections officials had criticized the death penalty in 2010, too. Ron McAndrew, a former Florida warden who oversaw executions, said “Many colleagues turned to drugs and alcohol from the pain of knowing a man had died at their hands. And I’ve been haunted by the men I was asked to execute in the name of the state of Florida.”

Former Ohio corrections director Reginald Wilkinson stated, “I’m of the opinion that we should eliminate capital punishment. Having been involved with justice agencies around the world, it’s been somewhat embarrassing, quite frankly, that nations just as so-called civilized as ours think we’re barbaric because we still have capital punishment.”

There have been 18 executions nationwide in 2012 as of mid-May. Connecticut abolished capital punishment in April 2012, becoming the fifth state to do so in five years, with Governor Dannel Malloy citing the “unworkability” of the death penalty system. Voters in California will consider a ballot initiative to abolish the death penalty in November 2012.

Sources: “The Death Penalty in 2011: Year End Report” & “The Death Penalty in 2010: Year End Report,” Death Penalty Information Center (; CNN; Chicago Tribune

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