Death penalty in decline?

Another drop in the number of executions last year

By: Marlene Martin

Is the death penalty falling out of favor with the U.S. population? Statistics showing another year in which fewer people were sentenced to death is an indication that this might be the case. A wide majority of Americans say that they support capital punishment--a recent Harris poll puts support for the death penalty at 69 percent. But that level of support is still down from the 80 percent of several years ago, and the majority support turns into a minority once people are told some of the facts about capital punishment, such as the large number of innocent people sent to death row.

This past year, 65 people were executed in the U.S., compared to 71 in 2002 and 66 in 2001. The number of those on death row decreased from 3,697 in 2002 to 3,504 as of October 2003. Even more clear-cut is the recent trend of fewer people being sent to death row. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 1996, 319 people were sentenced to death. In 2000, that number dropped to 229, and in 2001, it dropped to 155. The number went up slightly in 2002 to 159, but fell again last year to 139, according to an estimate given by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC).

According to the center, the rate of death sentences has been steadily declining and now is at the lowest point in more than a quarter century. "The death sentencing rate is the number of death sentences divided by the population, and is one measure of a country’s support for the death penalty," says a DPIC report. "The projected rate of sentencing for 2003--0.048 per 100,000 people--is the lowest rate since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976."

What accounts for the change? Prosecutors are not seeking the death penalty less often than before. A number of factors seem to be contributing to the decline. Most significant is the fact that jurors are less inclined to vote in favor of death. No doubt the troubling news that innocent people have been found on death row is having an impact. A May 2001 USA Today poll found that people adopting a newly formed anti-death penalty position had been convinced to do so because they felt that in some cases, innocent people were being sentenced to death.

Another reason that jurors might be less inclined to vote in favor of death is because of the recent attention given to mitigation--the circumstances of a defendant’s life that show why they shouldn’t be executed. Mitigation is important in the second part of a death penalty trial--the sentencing phase. In the past, defense lawyers spent much of their time on the guilt or innocence phase of the trial, and tended to de-emphasize the sentencing phase. But this seems to be changing.

As a result, jurors are hearing more about the history of defendants--whether or not they suffered abuse or neglect or a troubled past. Last year, the New York Times Magazine ran a cover story, titled "The Unwitting Abolitionists," which interviewed a juror who had marked on a questionnaire that she favored the death penalty, but voted against execution after learning the background of the defendant. "When you think about the death penalty in the abstract," she said, "you don’t think about the individuals."

Also, more and more people recognize that the death penalty does not do what its promoters contend: deter crime. A Harris poll conducted in December 2003 found that only 41 percent of Americans believe that the death penalty deters crime--the lowest number in 27 years.

One further likely reason for the downward trend is the 1993 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that requires courts to tell jurors if there is a life without the possibility of parole option, when that option exists. Of the 38 states with the death penalty, 36 have life without parole sentences. Support for the death penalty drops to less than half when life without the possibility of parole is offered as an alternative sentence.

Personally, I am not a proponent of the life without the possibility of parole sentence. I see it as a slow "in-house" death sentence, and I don’t believe that it takes into account that people can change. I’m in favor of second chances.

But leaving this aside, it’s clear that juries opting for life without parole sentences instead of death is a reflection of the growing doubts about the death penalty. This is yet another indication that our society is moving away from capital punishment.