The death penalty has lost its way in the muddled political rhetoric of 21st century governance
This week's news provides a glimpse into the untenable posture of the death penalty in America. Today's death penalty is more of a political prop than a legitimate form of punishment within the criminal justice system.
There were only 46 executions in 2010. The average length of time between murder and execution for those 46 condemned killers was 16.7 years. In 1994, about 16.7 years ago, 328 men and women were sentenced to death nationwide. That was the highest number since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. In, 2010 there were far fewer offenders sentenced to death, 112, still more than twice the number executed.
The death penalty has become a symbolic form of punishment. No one believes that the 3,373 men and woman on the nation's death rows will ultimately face execution. Let's say that death penalty verdicts continue at 2010's pace of 112 per year for the next ten years. There would be approximately 4,500 men and women on death row. Let's say that all 35 states with the death penalty executed one offender a month for the next ten years (this is not completely realistic since only eight states have more than 120 offenders on death row) after ten years at that frantic, and frankly impossible, pace there would be 4,300 executions, still leaving about 200 people on death row.
My point is,the likelihood that an offender sentenced to death will ultimately be executed is about one in seven. Yet, governors and legislators; prosecutors and defense attorneys; wardens and corrections officers consume so much of their time "tinkering" with the death penalty. Lawyers and prison officials have to--politicians want to.
In Illinois, the legislature voted to abolish the death penalty. The bill has been on Governor Pat Quinn's desk for more than a month. According to Gatehouse News Service, two Republicans have introduced bills that would reinstate and further reform the death penalty if Governor Quinn signs a bill abolishing it.
House Bill 1520, sponsored by State Representative Dennis Reboletti would ask voters at the November 2012 election whether or not they want Illinois to have capital punishment. The referendum would be advisory.
House Bill 1519, also sponsored by Reboletti, would reduce the number of aggravating factors for which the death penalty can be imposed. And Senate Bill 2277, sponsored by state Senator Kirk Dillard creates a panel that would have to pre-approve cases in which prosecutors seek the death penalty.
The two House bills would go into effect upon passage only if Governor Quinn signs the death-penalty abolition bill sitting on his desk. The governor has said he is weighing the merits of capital punishment and trying to hear from opponents and supporters before he makes up his mind.
In West Virginia, the death penalty was repealed in 1965. At the request of Delegate John Overington the House Judiciary Committee recently held a public hearing considering whether to reinstate the death penalty, according to the Charleston Daily Mail.
Overington is one of nearly 20 lawmakers who have co-sponsored the death penalty measure. There are two bills and one proposed constitutional amendment, which would have to be approved by voters statewide.
The hearing lasted about 90 minutes. Ten people spoke in favor of reinstatement, while 13 spoke against. House Judiciary Chairman Tim Miley said he did not believe there were enough votes on the panel to endorse a death penalty bill. He does not expect to place it on the committee's agenda.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Corey Palumbo whose father, Mario, fended off strong efforts to reinstate the death penalty in the 1970s and early 80s, said the measure also lacks support on his side of the Capitol.
Overington has been sponsoring death penalty bills annually for the past 25 years.
He said one-fifth of all House members have signed on to sponsor the three measures dealing with the issue during this session. He hopes they can somehow get the issue up for a vote.
In Montana, the state Senate is sending a bill to repeal Montana's death penalty to the House, where the plan failed two years ago, according to the Billings Gazette.
A day after the Senate signaled its support for Senate Bill 185, the chamber gave it final passage with another 26-24 vote.
The bill drew the support of all the chamber's Democrats and four Republicans.
If it passes, the bill will immediately replace the death penalty with life in prison without parole and could change the sentences of two inmates currently on death row.
Next, the bill must clear the Republican-dominated House. A similar measure passed the Senate last session in 2009, but didn't even make it out of a House committee.
In recent weeks, New Mexico's new GOP governor proposed a measures to reinstate the death penalty. Former Governor Bill Richardson signed a bill to outlaw the death penalty a couple of years ago. In New Jersey a legislator who sponsor the bill abolishing the death penalty has now come forward to say he would support the death penalty in limited circumstances.
Does this all sound crazy? Well it is crazy. The death penalty has more to do with political symbolism, "I'm a tough, law and order guy," than holding killers accountable and deterring future murders. The death penalty has lost its way in the muddled political rhetoric of 21st century governance.
What influence can proponents of the death penalty claim of a punishment that will be impossible to carry-out for the thousands of offenders already sentenced to death and have very little likelihood of being carried out for those yet to be sentenced.
I'm not suggesting that the death penalty is unfairly imposed, or that it is racially biased, or that innocent men or women have been executed, in fact no one can point to a single factually innocent offenders who has been executed in the modern era of the death penalty. I'm simply saying if you have 3,400 offenders on death row, and every year another 100 are added and the states execute about 50 a year, have those states with the death penalty created, or perpetuated, an illusory punishment? Should America continue to impose a sentence that has about a 16 percent chance of being carried out?
10 months ago