Doubts on the death penalty


Back in September, much was made of the crowd’s reaction at a GOP presidential debate after moderator Brian Williams noted that Texas Gov. Rick Perry had overseen more executions than any governor in modern times, and spectators burst into applause. Liberal pundits saw this as an example of the callousness of GOP voters, but we were more disturbed by the callousness on exhibit from Perry.

“I’ve never struggled with that at all,” Perry said. Why not? Perry oversaw the execution of a man who may well have been innocent, then quashed an investigation of the matter; most people in such a situation would, we suspect, experience at least a twinge of conscience. Cameron Todd Willingham was convicted in 1992 of burning down his house and killing his three children inside, yet the forensic science and jailhouse testimony used to convict him were later discredited. Despite serious questions about Willingham’s guilt, Perry signed off on his execution in 2004, then squelched an investigation of the evidence by replacing the members of a government commission just days before it was to consider a report about the shoddy science used to prosecute Willingham. The new committee chair, a close ally of Perry’s, quickly scuttled the inquiry.

We bring this up now, three months after the debate in question, because new data have emerged showing that despite a certain bloodthirsty element in some parts of the conservative base, support is steadily eroding for the ethical, legal and financial morass that is capital punishment. The Death Penalty Information Center’s annual report on capital punishment in America, released Thursday, showed that executions continued to drop in 2011, to 43; that’s down from 85 in 2000 and 46 last year. More significantly, the number of death sentences across the country fell dramatically this year, to 78 from 112 in 2010. And perhaps most significant of all, the percentage of Americans who say they support the death penalty, which was 80% in 1994, fell to 61%, the lowest ever.


In California, one number in particular stands out: There were only 10 people sentenced to death in the Golden State in 2011, compared with 29 last year. That may be a statistical anomaly, or it may indicate that prosecutors and courts are finally concluding, correctly, that death sentences have become largely pointless; legal complications have prevented anyone from being executed here since 2006. A continuing conflict over the state’s method for lethal injection and a shortage of a key drug often used to perform it, mean this situation won’t be resolved any time soon.

Yes, a majority of Americans still favor capital punishment. But the approval curve is heading in the right direction — downward — providing reason to hope that as our society evolves, the death penalty will die off.