Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Creators: The Slow Undoing of America's Death Penalty

Matthew T. Mangino
Creators Syndicate
January 23, 2024

On Jan. 25, Alabama intends to execute Kenneth Eugene Smith by a method known as nitrogen hypoxia. The method has never been used to kill a human being.

As we begin a new year, and a new method of execution, it is abundantly clear that a majority of Americans have grown to doubt the efficacy of the death penalty. For the first time, the number of executions exceeded the number of new death sentences nationwide.

There are fewer prosecutors seeking the death penalty, fewer juries imposing the death penalty and fewer states carrying out the death penalty. In fact, the 24 executions in 2023 were carried out in only five states — Texas, Florida, Missouri, Oklahoma and Alabama.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, only 21 people were sentenced to death in 2023. Those sentences were meted out in only seven states — Alabama, Arizona, California, Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina and Texas.

A Gallup poll conducted in 2023 found that 50% of Americans believe the death penalty is administered unfairly. Many Americans see the death penalty as an arcane and unfair punishment. However, politicians continue to use the death penalty to win political points and demonstrate their tough-on-crime bona fides.

One example is Alabama's rush to use a new execution method that experts believe may violate condemned prisoners' rights. According to CBS News, experts warn that using nitrogen hypoxia for an execution likely violates "a body of principles adopted by the U.N. to protect detained people and an international treaty against torture that the U.S. signed decades ago."

In another example of political posturing, Florida prosecutors have announced they intend to seek the death penalty in a child rape case. The pursuit of capital punishment comes after lawmakers passed, and Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law, a measure allowing the death penalty for those convicted of sexually assaulting children under the age of 12.

In Pennsylvania, according to the Uniontown Herald-Standard, a bill was recently introduced allowing the punishment of death for someone who is convicted of the rape of a child.

These new laws come in spite of a 2008 U.S. Supreme Court ruling — Kennedy v. Louisiana — that specifically prohibited the death penalty as an option for the crime of raping a child. What could be more evidence of political grandstanding than trying to enact a law that has been clearly deemed unconstitutional?

Contrary to the ill-conceived efforts in Florida and Pennsylvania, a number of states have recently outlawed the death penalty. Virginia is the most recent state to abolish the death penalty, dumping the punishment in July 2021. As a result, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, half of all U.S. states have abolished the death penalty or currently prohibit executions. In fact, 32 states have either abolished the death penalty or have not carried out an execution in more than a decade.

Is the death penalty inching toward a national consensus opposing executions?

Examining the death penalty in America's largest state provides some perspective on today's death penalty. Since capital punishment was reinstated in California in 1978, 13 condemned inmates have been executed. During those 45 years, 166 death row inmates have died from natural causes, suicide, drug overdoses or undetermined causes.

The absurdity of the death penalty doesn't end there. In Pennsylvania, where Gov. Josh Shapiro continued a "moratorium" implemented by his predecessor, only three men have been executed in more than 45 years.

Shapiro not only continued the previously imposed moratorium on signing death warrants; he called on the legislature to abolish the death penalty. He did not hide behind the idea that the death penalty is arbitrary or too costly; Shapiro said the death penalty is immoral.

Last year, a month into his term, Shapiro said, "The Commonwealth shouldn't be in the business of putting people to death, period." He continued, "At its core, for me, this is a fundamental statement of morality, of what's right and wrong in my humble opinion. And I believe as governor that Pennsylvanians must be on the right side of this issue."

A refreshingly straightforward response to an otherwise politically corrupted issue of life or death.

Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book "The Executioner's Toll, 2010" was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.

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