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A bridge to nowhere
By Ann Coppola, News Reporter
Published: 01/19/2009

Dpr Last year, the perfect storm of a failing economy and a prominent legal challenge resulted in some significant changes to how the United States thinks about the death penalty. The Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) just released its 2008 Year End Report , and the findings point to several areas of decline throughout the United States death penalty system.

“2008 was a year of some interesting changes, and we want to get people talking about it,” says Richard Dieter, DPIC executive director and the report’s author. DPIC is a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit organization that has served as a resource on the death penalty since 1990.

According to the report, the use of the death penalty in the U.S. is shrinking and executions are dwindling. The number of people sentenced to death in 2008 dropped to 111, the lowest number since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.

Additionally, executions dropped to a 14-year low of 37 in 2008, compared to 42 in 2007. The number of executions in 2008 also saw a 62 percent decline from the high point of 98 executions in 1999.

The reduced numbers are being attributed to two sources: legal challenges to the death penalty and cost concerns. In September of 2007, the United States Supreme Court case Baze v. Rees, a constitutional fight over lethal injection procedures, created a moratorium on executions. A decision wasn’t reached in the Kentucky case until April 2008, which allowed executions to resume.

But once the court cleared the way, there was no flurry of executions to make up for the ban during the previous seven months.

“We were surprised that the surge in executions that we expected after Baze did not happen,” says Dieter, who has authored the annual report since 1996. “Courts, legislatures and the public are increasingly skeptical about the death penalty, whether those concerns are based on innocence, inadequate legal representation, costs, or a general feeling that the system isn’t fair or accurate.”

As the economic recession slammed both state and federal government budgets, concerns also grew over the high costs associated with the death penalty. Last June, a report from the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice found that the death penalty was costing the state $138 million per year. It also called the state’s system “dysfunctional” and “close to collapse.”

In Maryland, a similar commission recommended the abolition of the death penalty, citing one reason as its associated high costs. The panel heard testimony that each of the state’s five executions had cost nearly $37 million dollars when all the costs of the death penalty system were included. A final vote on abolition is expected early this year.

Currently, San Quentin, California, policymakers and community members are debating the development of a $395.5 million Condemned Inmate Complex. Called the ‘Cadillac death row’ by its opponents, the project is scheduled to start as early as spring, 2009.

“Spending money on the death penalty is like building a bridge to nowhere,” Dieter adds. “It takes millions of taxpayer dollars to arrive at a single execution fifteen years after the trial. A far more likely outcome is that the case will be reversed and the execution will never occur.”

The federal government provided one exception to the report’s reduced numbers trend. Federal prisons saw an increase in death sentences in 2008. Plus, the average annual number of federal death sentences has increased 50 percent since the 1990s. The report partly attributes the increase to the 1994 law expanding the federal death penalty, and an emphasis on using the law more broadly during President George W. Bush’s administration.

DPIC’s report also examined exonerations and stays of execution. Four individuals were exonerated from death row in 2008. There have been a total of 130 exonerations since 1973. More than 25 executions were stayed, or temporarily suspended, for issues relating to mental illness, possible innocence, and ineffective legal representation.

The report also pointed out that the use of the death penalty was almost completely concentrated in southern states. Ohio was the only state outside the south to carry out an execution. Almost half of all executions were in Texas.

However, death sentences have dropped by more than 40 percent in all four geographical regions of the country since the 1990s. Last year, both New York and New Jersey stopped using the death penalty, dropping the number of states that utilize capital punishment to 35.

As the recession deepens, administrators and legislatures will look for more ways to cut budgets and curtail spending, which may put on hold or even abolish this county’s ultimate form of punishment.

Related Resources:

More on ‘Cadillac’ death row

Information on the Baze v. Rees case.


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