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Use of Death Penalty Trending Downwards

In its year-end report, the Washington, D.C., based Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) reported that there were 43 executions and 78 new death sentences in 2012, continuing a generally downward trend that began in the mid-1990s.

As of April 1, 2012, there were a total of 3,170 men and women awaiting execution in the United States, approximately 50 less than in 2011 and approximately 500 less than in 2000.

Connecticut became the fifth state in five years to abolish the death penalty, joining New Jersey, New York, New Mexico, and Illinois. Connecticut Governor Daniel Malloy noted the significant role played by victim’s families in the campaign to abolish the death penalty there. Still, the new law was not made retroactive, leaving 11 prisoners on that state’s death row.

Connecticut became the 17th non-death penalty state. The DPIC reported that three other states- Maryland, Colorado, and New Hampshire – “appear to be moving closer” to legislative abolition of the death penalty (following Connecticut’s lead).

In a November referendum, California voters narrowly rejected a measure that would have abolished capital punishment in the state which, by itself, houses more than one-fifth of the nation’s condemned prisoner population. Although the measure was defeated by a vote of 52% to 48%, support for the death penalty there has declined dramatically since 1978 when 71% of the public voted to expand its use in criminal prosecutions.

Just four states, including California (which sentenced 14 people to death in 2012), accounted for 65% of the country’s death sentences. Joining California in this dubious distinction were Florida (with 21), Texas (with 9), and Pennsylvania (with 7).

To the extent that death sentences predict future use of the death penalty, it is significant that Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina – traditional death penalty states - had no death sentences (or executions) in 2012. (More than half of the death sentences in 2012 – 45 out of 78 – were in the South). There were also no death sentences in Houston (Texas), which not so long ago was known as the “capital of capital punishment.”

Executions were carried out in “only” nine states (compared to 13 in 2011). Of those nine, four – Texas, Arizona, Oklahoma, and Mississippi – accounted for more than ¾ of all the executions in the U.S. in 2012. By itself, Texas (with 15) was responsible for 35% of all executions last year. Arizona, Oklahoma, and Mississippi each executed six (14% of the total) last year. Ohio and Florida each executed three people last year.

Polls show that the public is now evenly divided on whether the death penalty or life imprisonment without parole (LWOP) is the most appropriate punishment for capital murder. LWOP is favored by 64% of African-Americans, 56% of Hispanic-Americans, 52% of women, and 55% of those in the 18-29 age bracket. Republicans, Tea Party members and white Americans continue to favor the death penalty (by 59%, 61% and 53%, respectively).

In September 2012, Louisiana prisoner Damon Thibodeaux became the 141st person to be exonerated and freed from death row since 1973, and the 18th person released through DNA testing. Thibodeaux had initially “confessed” to killing his cousin. He later recanted, saying the confession was the result of a coercive nine-hour interrogation. Said Barry Scheck of New York’s Innocence Project, “People have a very hard time with the concept that an innocent person could confess to a crime that they didn’t commit. But it happens a lot. It’s the ultimate risk that an innocent man could be executed.”


Source: The Death Penalty in 2012: Year End Report, Death Penalty Information Center, December 2012. 

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