By: Alice Kim
Executions in the U.S. have declined dramatically in the last two years. In 2001, 66 people were put to death. In 2000, 85 people were put to death. And in 1998, 93 people were put to death. Texas cut executions by more than half, from 40 in 2000 to 17 in 2001.
In opposition to this trend, the federal government resumed federal executions in 2001, executing Timothy McVeigh and Juan Raul Garza within a week in June. The state of New Mexico brought back the death penalty. And executions in Oklahoma increased to a new high of 18.
Public Support for the Death Penalty Drops
An April 2001 ABC News poll found that 51 percent of Americans support a nationwide moratorium on executions while the fairness of the death penalty is studied.
A May 2001 Gallup Poll found that nationwide support for the death penalty fell to 65 percent, a significant 15 percent decline from 1994 findings, and the lowest level of support in 23 years.
An October 2001 Gallup Poll following the September 11 terrorist attacks found that support for the death penalty, at 68 percent, did not increase significantly.
U.S. Supreme Court Justices Speak Out
“People who are well represented at trial do not get the death penalty,” said Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “I have yet to see a death case among the dozens coming to the Supreme Court on eve-of-execution stay applications in which the defendant was well represented at trial.” Ginsburg voiced her support for a moratorium on the death penalty in Maryland last April.
“If statistics are any indication, the system may well be allowing some innocent defendants to be executed,” said Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in a speech to the Minnesota Women Lawyers Association.
Death Penalty Reforms Enacted
Five states — Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Missouri, and North Carolina — banned the execution of the mentally retarded.
Moratorium legislation was introduced in 18 states and the federal government (though none was enacted). Legislation nearly passed in Maryland and Nevada. And Illinois marked the second anniversary of its moratorium on executions on January 31, 2002.
Seventeen states enacted legislation to provide inmates with greater opportunity for postconviction DNA testing.
In 2001, five death row prisoners were exonerated, bringing the total number of exonerated to 98. With the release of Florida death row inmate Juan Melendez in January 2002, this number has already increased to 99.
Mumia Abu-Jamal’s Death Sentence Overturned
On December 18, federal judge William Yohn threw out the death sentence of Pennsylvania political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal and ordered a new sentencing hearing in the next 180 days.
Supreme Court Case Forces De Facto Moratorium in Florida
The U.S. Supreme Court stayed the executions of Florida death row prisoners Linroy Bottoson and Amos King while it considers an Arizona case that questions the constitutionality of having a judge, instead of the jury, decide on death sentences. Like Arizona, Florida and seven other states allow judges to hand down death sentences.
This forced pro-death penalty Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to stay the execution of Robert Trease, which was Florida’s third scheduled execution this year. No other executions are expected to take place until the high court rules on the Arizona case.
U.S. Supreme Court to Hear Three Death Penalty Cases
In late February, the Supreme Court will consider the constitutionality of executing the mentally retarded. In 1989, the court allowed this practice to continue, citing the lack of “national consensus” against execution of the mentally retarded.
In April, the Supreme Court will hear the Arizona case referred to above. The high court’s ruling could ultimately affect 795 cases in Florida, Arizona, and seven other states.
In the fall, the Supreme Court will hear the case of a Texas death row inmate who says that prosecutors kept Blacks off his jury.
Abolitionists Score Victories in Maryland
Maryland death row inmate Steven Oken, who would have been the first of the 13 inmates on Maryland’s death row to be executed since 1998, won a stay of execution in February to prepare an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Three other executions that were expected this spring will most likely be on hold until the high court rules in Oken’s case.
Maryland death row inmate Clarence Conyers Jr. won a new trial in February because the prosecution withheld information for the defense and jury in his original trial.
The recently released Columbia University study on the death penalty, led by law professor James Liebman, singles out Baltimore County for having a 100 percent reversal rate of its death penalty cases between 1973 and 1995.