Death Penalty Debate in States Heats Up

February 11, 2009

UPDATE:  The New Mexico House of Representatives passed the death penalty repeal bill, by a vote of 40-28.

Today the New Mexico House of Representatives will be debating and possibly voting on a bill to abolish the death penalty (HB285).   This is but one of a stream of bills to repeal or limit the death penalty under consideration across the country.

Yesterday, the New Hampshire House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee held hearings on bills to abolish the death penalty (HB556) or conduct a study (HB520) of its flaws.  Also yesterday, hearings were held on an abolition bill in Washington state (SB5476). And tomorrow or Friday, the Senate in Montana is expected to vote on an abolition bill (SB236).  A week from today, the much anticipated Senate committee hearing on the Maryland abolition bill (SB279) will take place.

With the exception of Washington, these are all states where death penalty abolition was expected to be given serious consideration, and those expectations are clearly being realized.  Other states, like Washington, Kansas (where Republican Senator Carolyn McGinn filed an abolition bill (SB208)) and Colorado (where a bill to repeal the death penalty and use the money saved to solve cold cases (HB09-1274)) have also begun to have serious discussions about ending the death penalty, primarily for economic reasons.  In Missouri, where lethal injection and other snafus have brought executions to a halt in what was once a very active death penalty state, over 60 co-sponsors, including at least 13 Republicans, have endorsed a bill to establish an official moratorium on executions (HB484).

There are notable exceptions to this apparent trend.  Executions continue in Texas at their usual high rate, and the Virginia legislature has, once again, passed a bill to expand the death penalty (HB2358 and SB961) to include those involved in murders who do not actually pull the trigger.  (If history is any guide, the Governor will once again veto this legislation.)

But, all in all, important debates about the wisdom of capital punishment are occurring in a larger number of states, and the slow, steady drift away from support for the death penalty seems to be continuing.