Fight against death penalty gains momentum in states

The fight against the death penalty is gaining momentum, opponents of the practice say, with Connecticut’s decision this month to abolish capital punishment making it the fifth state in five years to so do.

“For this to be happening in succession, and coupled with the decline in death penalty convictions, it creates a momentum that other states will at least consider to be a part of,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the independent Death Penalty Information Center.

Connecticut legislators voted to abolish the death penalty Wednesday, and Democratic Gov.Dannel P. Malloyhas said he will sign the bill. Connecticut will be the 17th state to do away with capital punishment and the seventh state to stop the death penalty since it was reinstated as constitutional by theU.S. Supreme Courtin 1976. The District of Columbia abolished it in 1981.

Opponents of capital punishment still cite moral and religious arguments — and last week’s vote in Connecticut was preceded by more than nine hours of gut-wrenching debate. But another force behind the recent trend is cost.

“Right now, budgets are still unbalanced in many states and programs are being cut in many areas,” Dieter said. “Schools, libraries and police forces … their budgets are all being cut. Lawmakers are thinking of getting rid of things they might not believe in that are expensive.”

California spends an additional $184 million per year total on its more than 700 death row prisoners than if they had been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, according to a comprehensive 2011 study by Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

An Urban Institute study in 2008 found that a single death sentence in Maryland costs almost $2 million more per case than a comparable non-death-penalty case.

“It’s not just the cost in a vacuum,” said Shari Silberstein, executive director of Equal Justice USA, a national grass-roots organization that opposes the death penalty. “It’s not to say that if it was a good economic time, we’d be supporting it. But people are weighing the cost … and realizing that the death penalty is a very ineffective way to keep the public safe, especially for the money.”

Supporters of capital punishment say it should remain an option for those convicted of heinous crimes and that the expense problem could be resolved through reform.

“Nobody favors the status quo. The question is, should you give up on justice because you don’t have the backbone to pass the reforms that are needed?” asked Kent Scheidegger, legal director for Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which works to ensure what it calls “swift and certain punishment” to those convicted of crimes.

“That’s not the way a democracy is supposed to work. What they should be doing is fixing the process,” Scheidegger said. “My expectation is that repeal efforts will end [with Connecticut] and reform efforts will work in other states.”

But other states are already reconsidering the death penalty.

In California, an initiative on November’s ballot will allow voters to decide whether to repeal capital punishment.

Oregon issued a moratorium on executions in 2011 and is conducting a study of alternatives to the death penalty. Pennsylvania also started a study of how the death penalty has been applied there.

Bills proposing the end of capital punishment are pending in Georgia, Kansas, New Hampshire and Washington.

Fear of executing innocent people has also driven the trend.

Illinois repealed the death penalty in March 2011 after a 10-year moratorium that was imposed after courts threw out the death sentences of 13 men. By the time the repeal was signed by Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, 20 people had been exonerated.

The exonerations highlighted a number of problems with the judicial system, including wrongful convictions based on false confessions and erroneous eyewitness testimony, the Northwestern University School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions reported.

Opponents of the death penalty also argue that the process drags out grief for the victims’ families.

“The families don’t want to hear about the case over and over again,” said Sarah Craft, a spokeswoman for Equal Justice USA. “Life without parole starts immediately.”

Some survivors of murder victims have been part of the recent debate over capital punishment. Victoria Coward of Connecticut was one of them. Her 18-year-old son, Tyler, was shot and killed in New Haven in 2007.

“When you lose somebody to homicide, you know what it’s like to lose somebody in one of the most hurtful ways possible,” Coward said.

Prosecutors told her it would be too difficult to go through a trial and have to see photos of her son’s body riddled with bullets, and suggested offering the killer a plea deal, which he took in 2010.

Coward lobbied lawmakers to end the death penalty and watched as state senators voted on the issue. Her son’s killer, Jose Fuentes Phillich, was 25 when he was sentenced to 30 years in prison. She seems at peace with the decision.

“The death penalty doesn’t help at all,” she said. “If you have the nerve to kill somebody, you should be able to sit there every day and think about what you did.”