Back in 2000, my second book written with Robert Jay Lifton (after our Hiroshima in America) was published, this time on capital punishment, titled Who Owns Death? In it, we boldly predicted that the practice would slowly expire in the United States, even though polls (and trends at the time) did not then offer firm evidence.
In many cases they still don’t, yet the death count (due to state murder) has been steadily declining.
As we noted back then, Americans like to tell pollsters that they back the death penalty, for justice or revenge or God’s will, but are uneasy about voting for it on juries, and judges (and lawmakers) often feel much the same. Also, we noted then, that the rising adoption of life-without-parole sentencing would have a major impact. What we didn’t foresee was that it would become increasingly difficult for states to obtain the chemicals needed to kill prisoners, partly because some manufacturers don’t like what they’re being used for.
Today, one of the few major media outlets to consistently oppose the death penalty, The New York Times, weighs in with an editorial marking the latest year of “progress” on this front. Here’s an excerpt. Also see my e-book on the subject, Dead Reckoning, including a compact history of death penalty in the USA and current debates.
In 2013, Maryland became the sixth state to end capital punishment in the last six years. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have abolished the penalty, and it is dormant in the federal system and the military. Thirty states have had no executions in the last five years.
As it becomes less frequent, the death penalty also becomes more limited to an extremely small slice of the country, and therefore all the more arbitrary in its application. All 80 death sentences in 2013 came from only about 2 percent of counties in the entire country, and all 39 executions—more than half occurred in Texas and Florida—took place in about 1 percent of all counties, according to a new report by the Death Penalty Information Center. Eighty-five percent of all counties have not had a single execution in more than 45 years.
Public support for the death penalty—an important factor in the Supreme Court’s consideration of its constitutionality—is at its lowest level in four decades, and 40 percent of people surveyed by Gallup say they do not believe it is administered fairly. Surely that is due in part to the hundreds of exonerations based on DNA testing—including 18 death-row inmates—which continue to reveal irreparable failures throughout the system.
Read Next: Remembering Delbert Tibbs.