A year-end report from the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) indicates the “number of new death sentences in 2012 was the second lowest since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.” The number remained near the historic low number of death sentences in 2011.
Seventy-eight people were sentenced to death in the United States. States that had typically used the death penalty at higher rates, like North Carolina, Virginia, South Carolina and Indiana, had no new death sentences.
Just nine states carried out executions, “the fewest number of states to do so in 20 years.” Additionally, “More than half of the states (29) either have no death penalty or have not carried out an execution in five years.” Remarkably, there were no executions in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana or Missouri.
Forty-three executions happened in the United States. They happened in only four states—Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Arizona. And, the majority of new death sentences were imposed on people in Florida, California, Texas and Alabama.
Connecticut joined 16 other states and repealed the death penalty. It was the fifth state in five years to end capital punishment. Last year, Illinois abolished the death penalty. In the years before 2011, New York, New Jersey and New Mexico abolished the death penalty. (A ballot measure brought California close to repealing the death penalty in November.)
Katie Haas of ACLU’s Human Rights Program put the numbers into context:
Over the past few years, Supreme Court rulings have banned the use of the death penalty for people with intellectual disabilities, children, and almost all non-homicide crimes. Five states have repealed the death penalty in the past five years, making for a total of 17 states and the District of Columbia that no longer use the death penalty. Last month, California also came close to ending the death penalty, with 47 percent of voters voting to end the punishment, a strong indication that the abolition movement is gaining support and momentum.
Yet, Haas added the developments do not make the death penalty system in the country any less broken. She wrote, “Since the modern death penalty era began in 1976, 1,320 people have been executed, and as of April there were 3,170 people awaiting execution across the country. The US is currently fifth in the world in its use of capital punishment, behind only China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.”
The death penalty system, according to the ACLU, violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which is a treaty the US ratified in 1992. It is supposed to “inflict the least mental and physical suffering possible,” but prisoners on death row can spend decades waiting to be executed. Many of them are often held in solitary confinement.
This year, Texas executed an intellectually disabled man, even though there is a constitutional ban on the use of the death penalty for these people. Texas was able to get away with it because, according to Amnesty International’s Laura Moye, “The Supreme Court allows states to determine their own standards of ‘mental retardation.'” Even if the Court decides to rule a state cannot carry out an execution, states still have the right to do so under their own standards, as Texas did with Marvin Wilson, a man whose IQ was 61.
The death penalty is also applied “arbitrarily and discriminatorily.” An ACLU submission informed the United Nations Human Rights Committee:
Among thousands of potentially eligible cases, only a handful of those convicted are sentenced to death; worse, the factors that determine who is sentenced to death are not legal, but accidents of race, class, and geography. The death penalty system fails to protect the innocent: since 1973, 141 innocent people in 26 states have been exonerated from death row, and tragically not all innocent people have escaped execution.
Less than a week ago, as the Associated Press reported, a judge in North Carolina, Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Gregory A. Weeks, commuted the death sentences of “three convicted killers, including two who killed law enforcement officers, to life in prison without the possibility of parole after ruling that race played an unjust role in jury selection at their trials.” The ruling was based on evidence that prosecutors had made an effort to ensure there were a low number of black jurors who heard the cases.
On September 21, 2011, Troy Davis was executed by the state of Georgia. There was ample evidence to stay his execution, including doubts about whether he was properly convicted and allegations that police had coerced witnesses into providing or not providing key testimony.
This year, as human rights advocates marked the one-year anniversary of his state-sanctioned murder, NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous said, “Last year the state of Georgia killed Troy Davis, an innocent man. Though he is not here, his memory lives on with us and fuels our fight to abolish the death penalty. Troy’s wrongful execution has changed the hearts of minds of millions and public support for the death penalty is now at an all-time low. We have heeded Troy’s request to not have the struggle for justice end with him — in the last year, we ended the death penalty in Connecticut and we are seeing momentum in Maryland and in California, where ending the death penalty is on the ballot.”
There have been no executions in Georgia since Davis was put to death. Georgia was close to executing an intellectually disabled inmate, African-American Warren Lee Hill, in July of this year but his execution was halted over an issue involving whether a “switch to a one-drug formula” violated state rules.
The late great people’s historian, Howard Zinn, eloquently wrote about how the US kills people to “send a message”:
There are societies that do not pretend to be “civilized”—military dictatorships and totalitarian states—and execute their victims without ceremony. Then there are nations like the United States, whose claim to be civilized rests on the fact that its punishments are legitimized by a complex set of judicial procedures. This is called “due process,” despite the fact that each step in this process is tainted by racial prejudice, class bias or political discrimination.
Zinn asked, “Is not the death penalty a kind of terror waged by the state, one death at a time, an attempt to instill fear and obedience in the population? That is the perverted sense of morality which now rules and will go on ruling, until Americans decide that it will no longer be tolerated.”
Each year, fewer and fewer Americans tolerate the death penalty. Momentum created by human rights advocates suggests it may be abolished entirely in the United States within the next ten or twenty years. Given its resurgence in the 1970s, that is to be celebrated. It also should inspire others to redouble their efforts to abolish the death penalty in America once and for all.