2011: Five Good Signs For Death Penalty Abolition in the US

December 20, 2011

stop the execution death penalty protesters
© Scott Langley

Given the dramatic events of the “Arab Spring” and “Occupy Wall Street”, Time Magazine has dubbed “The Protester” as its Person of the Year for 2011. Seems fitting enough, but someday we may also look back on this past year as a turning point in the history of death penalty abolition in the U.S.

On September 21, the crowds amassed around the world to protest the killing of Troy Davis were the most visible sign that opponents of capital punishment were turning up the volume.  But that wasn’t the only sign. Throughout the year more and more voices from across the U.S. spoke out against the death penalty.

To be sure, executions continued.  There were 43 executions in 13 states, though this was about half as many as there were in the year 2000.  But death sentences were 30% lower than they have ever been since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976. And beginning in January, when Missouri Governor Nixon commuted the death sentence of Richard Clay, all the way through December, when prosecutors decided to drop their efforts to seek death for Mumia Abu-Jamal, commitment to the death penalty, even on the part of its supporters, was on the wane, and there were many signs that momentum for ending executions was on the rise:


Ohio in recent years has executed more people than any state except Texas.  But in January, Paul E. Pfeifer, a Republican Ohio Supreme Court Justice who as a legislator had helped write Ohio’s current death penalty law, called for its repeal. Terry Collins, a former prison warden who had overseen 33 Ohio executions, did likewise.

Later in the year, Ohio’s Republican Governor John Kasich commuted two death sentences. And the year in the Buckeye State concluded with Justice Pfeifer testifying to the legislature that Ohio has a “death lottery” not a death penalty, adding “Ohio is no longer well served by our death-penalty statute. It should be repealed.


In early February, families of Connecticut murder victims submitted a letter urging that state to stop killing in their name.  The letter now has over 80 signers.  The letter said, succinctly, “Connecticut’s death penalty fails victims’ families.” Though Connecticut did not pass an abolition bill this year, state legislators should be persuaded to honor the wishes of these dozens of victims’ family members in 2012.

In Texas, Rais Bhuiyan sought tirelessly to prevent the July execution of Mark Stroman, a white supremacist who tried to kill him and did kill two others because of their Middle Eastern appearance.  Rais was unsuccessful, but his voice became yet another to declare that “At some point we have to break the cycle of violence. It brings more disaster.”


Disaster came in September with the execution of Troy Davis in Georgia.  But the injustice of his execution, despite serious doubts about his guilt, generated an unprecedented flood of opposition both to his execution and to the death penalty itself.  Troy Davis was named one of Time Magazine’s People Who Mattered in 2011, and the story became a Time Magazine top ten U.S. news story of the year. It was also the second most Tweeted story in 2011 (based on Tweets-per-second).

Six former prison wardens who have collectively overseen 65 executions called for a halt to Troy’s.  Hundreds of thousands signed petitions opposing the execution, and took the Pledge to work for abolition of the death penalty after the death sentence was carried out.  A Gallup poll released shortly afterwards showed death penalty support at its lowest since 1972.   Conservatives like Kathleen Parker called capital punishment an “abomination”. She wrote:  “When we join together to administer death, we become something other than a civilized community of men and women. No matter how we frame the arguments or justifications, we become executioners.”


Just as the Troy Davis drama was heating up, Californians launched an effort to prevent the 37 million residents of their state from becoming executioners. The SAFE California initiative, if placed on the November 2012 ballot and passed, will replace the death penalty with life without parole and use some of the millions of dollars saved to address California’s dismal unsolved murder rate.

Colorado, Connecticut, Kansas, Maryland and Montana also remained close to repealing their capital punishment laws, and in November the Governor of Oregon declared that he would not allow any executions to be carried out under his watch.  And of course, Illinois became the 16th state to ban capital punishment when, on March 9, Governor Pat Quinn signed an abolition bill into law.  As he signed the bill he said: “Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history.  I think it’s the right, just thing to abolish the death penalty.”


Throughout 2011, pharmaceutical companies were scrambling (usually unsuccessfully) to prevent executions from being carried out with their drugs.  In January, Hospira stopped production of sodium thiopental. In February Novartis announced it would not allow its version of sodium thiopental to be exported to the U.S.  And by June, Lundbeck, the maker of the anesthetic pentobarbital, was taking increasingly proactive steps (with the considerable encouragement of European campaigners like Reprieve) to try to stop its drug from being used to kill prisoners.

Though executions were carried out with Lundbeck’s drug, the company’s more active approach has caused at least a couple of states to look elsewhere, and now a fourth company, Naari, has been dragged into the U.S. execution business, without its knowledge or consent. Its spokesman stated recently:  “We’re not in the business of helping to execute people. We were lied to and cheated.”

Throughout 2011, public and even political enthusiasm for playing the role of executioner was dwindling.  And rejection of participation in executions was growing.  In the Year of the Protester, more people than ever before stepped up and spoke out against the death penalty. In 2012, support for death penalty abolition is likely to become  louder and more visible than ever.

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