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Death Sentences Drop to Lowest Number Since 1976

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The death penalty may be on the way out.

Sentences to the ultimate punishment began their downward trajectory in the late 1990s,
and in the 15 years between 1996 and 2011 death sentences declined about 75 percent. In
1996, 315 individuals were sentenced to death.

New death sentences dropped to 78 in 2011, representing a dramatic decline from last
year's number of 112 and marking the first time since capital punishment was reinstated
in 1976 that the country has produced fewer than 100 death sentences in a single year.

These are some of main findings in the annual report of the Death Penalty Information
Center (DPIC), based on data as of mid-December 2011. The DPIC is a non-profit
organization serving the media and the public with analysis and information on issues
concerning capital punishment.

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"Many of those challenging the death penalty now had defended it in the past, including
people who introduced death penalty legislation or presided over executions. The
multitude of problems associated with the death penalty is gradually convincing
Americans that it can no longer be sustained," the Report says.
The Report also notes that Executions have also steadily decreased nationwide, with 43 in
2011 and 46 in 2010, representing a 56 percent decline since 1999, when there were 98.
Texas had 13 executions in 2011, and 24 in 2009, representing a 46 percent drop over
two years.
Further information on these data is contained in "The Death Penalty in 2011: Year End
Report" which can be found at 
"This year, the use of the death penalty continued to decline by almost every measure.
Executions, death sentences, public support, the number of states with the death penalty
all dropped from previous years," said Richard Dieter, DPIC's Executive Director and the
report's author. "Whether it's concerns about unfairness, executing the innocent, the high
costs of the death penalty, or the general feeling that the government just can't get it
right, Americans moved further away from capital punishment in 2011."
Many states with the death penalty on the books, including Maryland, South Carolina,
Missouri, and Indiana, had no new death sentences this year. California had a sharp drop
in death sentences in 2011, decreasing by over half since 2010 when there were 29
sentences. Repeal of the death penalty is likely to be on the ballot in that state next year.
The declining numbers occurred in the context of three significant developments in the
evolution of capital punishment this year:  
--        Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed legislation to repeal the death penalty,
making Illinois the fourth state in four years to abandon capital punishment. A
commission reported that the state had spent $100 million on assisting counties with
death penalty prosecutions while the state's deficit grew to one of the country's
--        Many Americans were shocked to learn that a man, Troy Davis in Georgia, could
be executed in spite of strong doubts about his guilt. Several key witnesses recanted
their testimony against Davis, causing even death penalty supporters like former U.S.
Rep. Bob Barr to state: "Imposing a death sentence on the skimpiest of evidence does
not serve the interest of justice."
--        Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber stopped a pending execution and ordered that
no others would occur during his term. Governor Kitzhaber, who oversaw two
executions in the 1990s, urged citizens to "find a better solution" to a system that he
said is arbitrary, expensive and "fails to meet basic standards of justice."
Also this year, the Report noted, the Gallup Poll, which measures the public's support for
the death penalty without offering alternatives, recorded the lowest level of support and
the highest level of opposition in almost 40 years. Some 61 percent supported the death
penalty, compared to 80 percent in 1994. Thirty-five percent were opposed, compared to
16 percent in 1994. A more in-depth CNN poll gave respondents a choice between the
death penalty and life without parole for those who commit murder. Fifty percent chose a
life sentence, while 48 percent chose death.
One clear sign of increasing discomfort with the death penalty has been the decline in the
number of states with capital punishment in effect. Illinois joined New Mexico, New
Jersey, and New York in abandoning the death penalty, marking an 11% decline in death
penalty states since 2007.    
Death Penalty Statistics 2011 2010 2000
Executions           43   46   85
New Inmates Under
Death Sentence   78 112 224
Death Row population
 (As of Jan. 1)   3,251 3,261 3,652
Percentage of executions by region:
South (32 executions)   74% 76% 89%
Texas (13)    30% 40% 47%
Midwest (6)    14% 17% 6%
West (4)    12% 7% 5%
Northeast (0)    0% 0% 0%
Executions Since 1976: 1,277
Texas 477 (37%)
Virginia 109 (9%)
Oklahoma 96 (8%)
Report data show that three states combined -- Texas, Virginia and Oklahoma -- meted out 
682 death sentences since 1976. That represents 53 per cent of all executions in the US.
Most US executions occur in the South.
The number of new death sentences dropped dramatically in 2011, falling below 100 for
the first time in the modern era of capital punishment. Executions also continued to
decline, while developments in a variety of states illustrated the growing discomfort that
many Americans have with the death penalty.
Illinois abolished the death penalty in 2011, the governor of Oregon declared a
moratorium on all executions, and a national outcry was heard around the execution of
Troy Davis in Georgia because of doubts about his guilt.
In January, the Illinois legislature voted to repeal the death penalty, replacing it with a
sentence of life without parole. The legislation requires some of the money saved by this
action to go to victims'services and crime prevention. Governor Pat Quinn signed the
bill, making Illinois the fourth state in four years to abandon capital punishment. A state
commission reported $100 million had been spent on assisting counties with death
penalty prosecutions over the past seven years, while the state's deficit had become one
of the largest in the country.
Illinois had not had an execution in 12 years.
In Georgia, the report declared, a very different scenario played out, but it also exposed
deep concerns about the use of the death penalty. On September 21 Georgia executed
Troy Davis, despite significant doubts about his guilt and urgent requests from national
and international leaders to spare his life.
 Davis had been convicted principally on the basis of eyewitness testimony, a form of
evidence that has recently come under increasing scrutiny.
The U.S. Supreme Court recently considered Perry v. New Hampshire, a case questioning
the validity of eyewitness testimony when the identification was made under unreliable
circumstances.  At the same time, years of scientific study on the accuracy of human
memory are pointing to the need for reform in the use of eyewitness evidence in criminal
Barbara Tversky, a psychology professor at Columbia University, whose experiments on
memory were reported in the journal Cognitive Psychology, noted, "Memory is weak in
eyewitness situations because it's overloaded.  An event happens so fast, and when the
police question you, you probably weren't concentrating on the details they're asking
About 75% of DNA-based exonerations have come in cases where eyewitnesses have
made mistakes.  Scientists suggest that witness testimony should be viewed more like
trace evidence, with the same fragility and vulnerability to contamination.  Strong
emotions felt by victims of a crime is one such possible area of contamination. Gary
Wells, a psychology professor at Iowa State University, found that the accuracy of
lineups improves when the possible suspects are presented to witnesses in sequence,
rather than all at once, as in the traditional lineup. The downfall of side-by-side lineups,
Dr. Wells said, is that "if the real perpetrator is not in there, there is still someone who
looks more like him than the others." The Supreme Court of New Jersey recently
promulgated new rules for dealing with the problems of eyewitness identification.
Years after his trial, 7 of the 9 state witnesses against Davis changed their stories. A
federal judge in Savannah conducted a hearing to review this new evidence, but in order
to grant Davis a new trial the judge required not only that he establish reasonable doubt
of his guilt, but that he provide clear proof of his innocence, which he was unable to do to
the judge's satisfaction.
A former head of the FBI, along with former judges, prosecutors, and elected leaders
from around the country urged the Board of Pardons and Paroles to intervene to prevent a
miscarriage of justice. Citizens protested in front of the White House, the Supreme Court,
and the Georgia prison where the execution took place. Similar demonstrations occurred
in cities around the world.
People were shocked that in the U.S. someone could be executed despite so much doubt
about his guilt. When Davis was denied clemency, former U.S. Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia
said, "Imposing a death sentence on the skimpiest of evidence does not serve the interest
of justice."
Even former supporters of the death penalty found the process so inflexible and
unresponsive that they were convinced the system is not working. President Jimmy
Carter said, "If one of our fellow citizens can be executed with so much doubt
surrounding his guilt, then the death penalty system in our country is unjust and
Finally, in Oregon on Governor John Kitzhaber halted a pending execution and declared
that no additional executions would occur during his tenure. He urged the legislature and
the people of the state to seek a sensible way to address serious crime: "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," he stated. "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."
Figuring out the 'why' of the death penalty's decline is complicated. But the statements
of governors who have the life and death responsibility may shed some light on the
underlying reasons.
Governor John Kitzhaber of Oregon put a halt to executions in 2011, stating,"
Oregonians have a fundamental belief in fairness and justice -- in swift and certain justice.
The death penalty as practiced in Oregon is neither fair nor just; and it is not swift or
certain. It is not applied equally to all. It is a perversion of justice that the single best
indicator of who will and will not be executed has nothing to do with the circumstances
of a crime or the findings of a jury. The only factor that determines whether someone
sentenced to death in Oregon is actually executed is that they volunteer."
Gil Garcetti, the former district attorney of Los Angeles who pursued numerous death
sentences, said California's death penalty is dysfunctional and the resources spent on it
should be diverted to more pressing needs.
"California's death penalty does not and cannot function the way its supporters want it to.
It is also an incredibly costly penalty, and the money would be far better spent keeping
kids in school, keeping teachers and counselors in their schools and giving the juvenile
justice system the resources it needs. Spending our tax dollars on actually preventing
crimes, instead of pursuing death sentences after they've already been committed, will
assure us we will have fewer victims."
Garcetti said the death penalty causes ongoing torment to the family members and friends
of murder victims: "The living victims of a particular crime might think that a death
verdict provides closure, but for most, there was no such closure."
Many of those who have analyzed the system of capital punishment, including leaders in
law enforcement, former supporters of the death penalty and victims' families, have
concluded the system is seriously flawed. Among those who spoke out this year were:
Dr. Allen Ault, a retired Georgia prison warden, underscored the difficult issues prison
officials face when participating in an execution: "You're killing somebody. And there's
no denying that, especially when we know that several people have been declared
innocent with the new scientific techniques, and we're not real sure if the individual we're
executing this evening or next week is really guilty -that in itself, that kind of doubt. The
other thing most of us know [is] all the research which indicates that capital punishment
does not deter . . . it seems so illogical to say to the public we do not want you to kill, and
to demonstrate that, we're going to kill individuals."
Kathryn Gaines, Rita Shoulders, Victoria Cox and Ruth Lowe had someone in their
family murdered but believe a death Sentence for the killers would only deepen their
personal wounds. Shoulders lost her sister to murder; Cox lost her brother; Lowe also lost
her brother; and Gaines her eldest grandchild. Ruth Lowe said of the man who killed her
brother, "I'm learning to forgive. And even if I had the chance, I wouldn't want him Year
executed. It would do nothing for me; it would do nothing for the rest of my family. To
take his life would make no sense." Kathryn Gaines said, "You cannot bring a life back
by taking away another life. It hurts a whole family."
Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo advocated for a sentence of life without
parole to replace the death penalty: "There is a punishment that is much better than the
death penalty: one that juries will not be reluctant to impose; one that is so menacing to a
potential killer, that it could actually deter; one that does not require us to be infallible so
as to avoid taking an innocent life; and one that does not require us to stoop to the level
of the killers."
Don Heller, a Republican former prosecutor and author of the 1978 ballot initiative that
greatly expanded California's death penalty law, now says, "I never contemplated the
staggering cost of implementing the death penalty: more than $4 billion to date and
approximately $185 million projected per year in ongoing costs. . . . It makes no sense to
prop up such a failed system."
But for many, the following statement carries the highest level of credibility: It comes
from Jeanne Woodford, former Warden of San Quentin prison in California.
She said of the death penalty, "The death penalty serves no one. It doesn't serve the
victims. It doesn't serve prevention. It's truly all about retribution." She added, "There
comes a time when you have to ask if a penalty that is so permanent can be available in
such an imperfect system. The only guarantee against executing the innocent is to do
away with the death penalty."


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William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East and elsewhere for the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development. He served in the international affairs area in the Kennedy Administration and now (more...)

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