Death penalty falls to new low as vot­ers seek resur­gence

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY AN­DREA NOBLE

Use of the death penalty in the United States fell to a his­toric low in 2016, even as vot­ers in three states passed bal­lot ini­tia­tives in sup­port of cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment, ac­cord­ing to a year-end re­port from the Death Penalty In­for­ma­tion Cen­ter.

Thirty death sentences are ex­pected to be im­posed by the end of the year — a 39 per­cent de­crease from 2015 — mark­ing the low­est num­ber of ex­e­cu­tions in a sin­gle year since 1972, the be­gin­ning of a four-year mora­to­rium on cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment. The U.S. Supreme Court reaf­firmed its le­gal­ity in 1976.

The 20 ex­e­cu­tions car­ried out in five states in 2016 rep­re­sent the low­est num­ber in a sin­gle year since 1991, when 14 in­mates were put to death, ac­cord­ing to the re­port. Ex­e­cu­tions peaked in 1999, when 98 felons were put to death.

The con­tin­u­ing de­cline in the use of the death penalty and in death sentences “re­flects both the in­creas­ing geographic iso­la­tion and out­lier ap­pli­ca­tion of cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment in the United States,” the re­port states, not­ing that a lack of ac­cess to drugs used in lethal in­jec­tions has been a ma­jor fac­tor in lim­it­ing the abil­ity of states to carry out ex­e­cu­tions.

But Kent Schei­deg­ger, le­gal di­rec­tor of the Crim­i­nal Jus­tice Le­gal Foun­da­tion, said fewer death penalty-el­i­gi­ble cases and a greater se­lec­tiv­ity by pros­e­cu­tors in their pur­suit of cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment has played a role in this year’s lower fig­ures.

“On the whole, I think the death penalty is be­ing im­posed where it is war­ranted,” said Mr. Schei­deg­ger, who helped write Cal­i­for­nia’s Propo­si­tion 66, which stream­lines the ap­peals process for death row in­mates.

Vot­ers in Ne­braska and Ok­la­homa also passed ini­tia­tives this year that pro­tect the use of cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment in their states.

The Jan. 3 sen­tenc­ing of Dy­lann Roof, who gunned down nine black church­go­ers in a racially mo­ti­vated at­tack, could serve as an early in­di­ca­tor for how South Carolina ju­rors feel about putting a con­victed mur­derer on death row.

For Mr. Schei­deg­ger, the case rep­re­sents ex­actly the kind of hor­rific crime the death penalty is meant to pun­ish.

The last time some­one was put to death in South Carolina was 2011. The state has 43 in­mates on death row.

A to­tal of 2,905 in­mates cur­rently are held in pris­ons across the coun­try await­ing death sentences.

Even if ju­ries or vot­ers sup­port cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment, the courts are still wrestling with its le­gal­ity.

The Cal­i­for­nia Supreme Court on Tues­day halted im­ple­men­ta­tion of Propo­si­tion 66 in or­der to give judges more time to con­sider a law­suit al­leg­ing the mea­sure would dis­rupt the courts, cost more money and limit the abil­ity to mount proper ap­peals.

The ini­tia­tive was one of two cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment mea­sures Cal­i­for­ni­ans voted on this year: They re­jected a pro­posal to re­peal the death penalty and re­place it with life in prison with­out the pos­si­bil­ity of pa­role.

State courts in Florida and Delaware this year ruled that por­tions of their statutes were un­con­sti­tu­tional be­cause they al­lowed death sentences even when ju­ries did not reach unan­i­mous de­ci­sions.

This week the Ari­zona De­part­ment of Cor­rec­tions agreed to set­tle part of a law­suit over drugs used in lethal in­jec­tions — promis­ing not to use the seda­tive mi­da­zo­lam as part of a three-drug cock­tail for ex­e­cu­tions.

Ex­e­cu­tions have been on hold in the state since the 2014 death of con­victed killer Joseph Ru­dolph Wood, who gasped and heaved dur­ing his ex­e­cu­tion and took nearly two hours to die af­ter he was given mi­da­zo­lam. His at­tor­ney said the ex­e­cu­tion was botched.

A re­main­ing claim in the on­go­ing law­suit al­leges Ari­zona abused its dis­cre­tion in the meth­ods and amounts of drugs used in past ex­e­cu­tions.

None of the three states that passed death penalty mea­sures ex­e­cuted any­one in 2016, though nine peo­ple were placed on death row in Cal­i­for­nia.

The Death Penalty In­for­ma­tion Cen­ter re­port notes that 2016 marked the first time in at least 40 years that no state im­posed 10 or more death sentences in a year.

“The death sentences con­tin­ued to be dis­pro­por­tion­ately con­cen­trated in a small num­ber of out­lier coun­ties and the prod­uct of out­lier prac­tices,” the re­port states.

Death sentences peaked in 1996, with 315 such sentences im­posed.

The re­port also high­lights con­cerns about how the death penalty is used, not­ing that 12 of the 20 felons put to death in 2016 ex­hib­ited “sig­nif­i­cant ev­i­dence of men­tal ill­ness, brain im­pair­ment, and/or low in­tel­lec­tual func­tion­ing.” Like­wise, 11 con­victs sen­tenced to death in 2016 ex­hib­ited ev­i­dence of in­tel­lec­tual dis­abil­ity, se­vere men­tal ill­ness or were un­der the age of 21 when they com­mit­ted the crimes.

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