WASHINGTON (RNS) — The campaign to abolish the death penalty has been freshly invigorated this month in a series of actions that supporters say represents increasing evidence that America may be losing its taste for capital punishment.
As early as this week, Gov. Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, is poised to sign a bill repealing the death penalty in Connecticut. A separate proposal has qualified for the November ballot in California that would shut down the largest death row in the country and convert inmates’ sentences to life without parole.
Academics, too, have recently taken indirect aim: The National Research Council concluded last week that there have been no reliable studies to show that capital punishment is a deterrent to homicide.
That study, which does not take a position on capital punishment, follows a Gallup Poll last fall that found support for the death penalty had slipped to 61 percent nationally, the lowest level in 39 years.
In Texas, which has long projected the harshest face of the U.S. criminal justice system, there has been a marked shift. Last year, the state’s 13 executions marked the lowest number in 15 years. And this year, the state — the perennial national leader in executions — is scheduled to carry out just 10.
Capital punishment proponents say the general decline in death sentences and executions in recent years is merely a reflection of the sustained drop in violent crime, but some lawmakers and legal analysts say the numbers underscore a growing wariness of wrongful convictions.
Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, said the country’s system of capital punishment is in need of change, but not elimination. He said there is “strong motivation,” though, to fix a system that can take 20 years for offenders to reach the death chamber following conviction. “The vast majority of states (33, not counting Connecticut) still have the possibility of the death penalty,” Burns said.
(Kevin Johnson writes for USA Today.)