December 21, 2007
The tide has turned against capital punishment in America. This week, New Jersey became the first state in the modern era to legislatively abolish its death penalty. In October, the New York State Court of Appeals tossed out New York’s death penalty, and cleared the state’s death row for good. Maryland came close to passing a repeal of the death penalty with the vocal support of its governor. An abolition bill passed Montana’s Senate earlier this year. Nebraska, one of the reddest states in the Union, came within one vote of abolishing its death penalty. In the meantime, the protocols of lethal injection are currently under scrutiny by the Supreme Court, leaving the nation’s execution chambers frozen. America has not gone this long without a single execution in decades.
But this movement away from capital punishment isn’t occurring because the United States is experiencing some sort of moral rebirth. A majority of America still believes that our worst criminals deserve to be put to death, but a substantially larger majority supports a moratorium on executions while the system’s flaws are addressed. Americans are worried that our criminal justice system is too dysfunctional to properly carry out death sentences. Our discomfort with executions has less to do with the ethics of crime and punishment, and everything to do with the state of the system that carries out those punishments.
America’s skepticism is easy to understand, especially in light of the alarming streak of exonerations that began with the advent of DNA testing decades ago. More than 200 people have since been exonerated by DNA evidence proving them innocent. And at least 126 people have been released from death rows in 25 states.
The stories are shocking: forced false confessions, eyewitness misidentification, incompetent or fraudulent forensic analysis. Plain old inevitable human error. It is clear that if our justice system can go this wrong, we can’t allow it to continue to function as is.
As if the possibility of wrongful execution wasn’t enough, the death penalty’s many other systematic flaws have piled up so high that the nonpartisan American Bar Association called for a moratorium on executions this year. Here’s why:
• The death penalty is arbitrary. The vast majority of capital sentences come from a small minority of counties, depending on the nature of individual prosecutors rather than crime rates.