The Death Penalty:Tinkering' to Good Effect

The execution of Saddam Hussein roused condemnation by the United Nations and European Union leaders. But this widespread international criticism also cast a spotlight on the use of capital punishment in the United States, where public dissatisfaction has been growing. An overview of the current situation follows.
Declining Use. The nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C., noted in its year-end report that the use of capital punishment continued to decline in 2006, with executions dropping to their lowest levels in a decade. The number of death sentences and the size of the nation’s death rows are also decreasing. And, the report notes, the Gallup polls found that more people now support a sentence of life in prison without parole rather than execution.

Supreme Court. Citing evolving standards of decency, the Supreme Court ruled in March 2002 that the execution of juveniles who committed their crimes when under 18 years of age violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The same ruling served as the basis of the court’s decision concerning those with mental retardation. Ambiguities remain, however, regarding what constitutes mental retardation. Similarly, in 1986, the court forbade the execution of the insane, but here too areas of unclarity persist. The debate over execution of the mentally ill currently focuses on whether they understand they are to be executed and why.

The States. Thirty-eight states (and the federal government) permit capital punishment. New Jersey recently became the first jurisdiction to impose legislatively a moratorium on its use. Other states have mandated a temporary halt while special commissions study issues of fairness and accuracy. New York’s high court declared its death penalty statute unconstitutional in 2004. In 2000 Illinois took a major step when George Ryan, then governor, imposed a moratorium on capital punishment after 13 of its death row prisoners were exonerated following the introduction of exculpatory evidence. The moratorium is still in force. Nationwide, 173 people have been exonerated since 1973.

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Lethal Injection. Controversy over lethal injection errors has led eight states and the federal system to suspend its use. In one Florida case, it took half an hour for Angel Diaz to die in December 2006.

Race. In 1990, the U.S. General Accounting Office concluded that the race of the victim was found to influence the likelihood of being charged with capital murder or receiving the death penalty, i.e., those who murdered whites were found more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murdered blacks. Recent studies support this conclusion.

Legal Representation. At the initial trial level of death penalty cases, prisoners from low-income backgrounds unable to afford qualified defense attorneys must depend on public defenders or court-appointed attorneys, some of them with little or no experience in capital cases and often poorly recompensed. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said on April 9, 2001: I have yet to see a death penalty case...[in] eve-of-execution stay applications in which the defendant was well represented at trial. People who are well represented do not get the death penalty.

Church Teaching.The Catechism of the Catholic Church states (No. 2267) that cases that might seem to warrant capital punishment are very rare, if not practically non-existent. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops launched its Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penalty on March 21, 2005. Richard Dieter, the Death Penalty Information Center’s executive director, told America that the campaign is making headway and that views among Catholics are changing.

Before his retirement in 1994, the late Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, who had been a supporter of capital punishment, concluded that the death penalty could not be fixed and declared, I will no longer tinker with the machinery of death. Since then, tinkering on a wide level has led to significant results in lessening the use of and support for the death penalty. In New York and New Jersey, for example, hearings held over many days led state residents to testify overwhelmingly that capital punishment should be abandoned. Meanwhile, four countries account for almost all executions in the world: China, Iran and Saudi Arabia are three. The United States is number fourhardly appropriate company for a nation that wants to be proud of its human rights record.

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