Death Penalty In 2012: Seven Significant Signs

December 18, 2012

A final tally of the Connecticut legislature's  vote to abolish the death penalty.
A final tally of the Connecticut legislature’s vote to abolish the death penalty.

By this time at the end of the year, states have generally stopped killing their prisoners. This break from executions is a good thing, and perhaps this year it will give us a chance to reflect on the larger question of our violent culture, and on how perhaps we can start focusing on preventing terrible crimes rather than simply responding with more violence.

The end of the year is also a time for looking back. Fortunately, this is also the time of year when the Death Penalty Information Center releases its year-end report, which provides a lot of good data. This year’s version reveals the geographically arbitrary (and increasingly isolated) nature of capital punishment in the U.S. In 2012, death sentences and executions maintained their historically low levels, and only nine states actually carried out an execution.  In fact, the majority of U.S. states have not carried out an execution in the last five years. Just four states were responsible for around three-fourths of the country’s executions, and four states issued about two thirds of U.S. death sentences.

Death sentences from 1995-2012, courtesy of the Death Penalty Information Center.
Death sentences from 1995-2012. Graphic courtesy of the Death Penalty Information Center.

Many states, even if not fully abolishing the death penalty, seem to be gradually opting out. Here are seven significant signs that American capital punishment continued its slow, but by no means uniform, decline in 2012.

  1. State Repeal EffortsConnecticut became the 17th state to abolish the death penalty when Governor Malloy signed a repeal bill on April 25. And even though California voted no on Proposition 34, which would have abolished that state’s death penalty, the vote was close, indicating that repeal in California still has a promising future.
  2. Clemencies In Cases Involving Mental Disability – In Ohio, the execution of Abdul Awkal was stayed in June by Governor John Kasich due to Awkal’s long history of severe mental illness. One month later, Governor Kasich also granted clemency to John Jeffrey Eley, citing Eley’s limited mental capacity as a reason. Meanwhile in Georgia, Warren Hill received a stay 90 minutes before his scheduled execution, though not on the grounds of his clear “mental retardation,” but because of a lethal injection technicality. But while some authorities granted relief to prisoners with mental disabilities, no such thoughtfulness was evident in Texas, where Marvin Wilson was executed in August despite having an IQ of 61. And John Errol Ferguson is still at risk of being executed in Florida despite his diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia and his delusional belief that he is the “Prince of God”.
  3. Clemencies In Cases Involving Terrible Childhood Abuse – In January, Robert Gattis, whose petition cited longtime sexual and physical abuse by family members, was granted clemency in Delaware. But in other states, executions of prisoners were carried out despite evidence of similarly traumatic childhoods. Sammy Lopez grew up in a “horrifically violent home” and suffered “significant neurological impairments” yet was executed in Arizona in June. In the same month, Michael Brawner was executed in Mississippi despite having been diagnosed with PTSD and bi-polar disorder, stemming from the frequent and severe abuse he suffered throughout his childhood. Daniel Cook suffered extreme sexual, physical and emotional abuse by family members and group home leaders, and was diagnosed with various mental disorders, from schizophrenia to acute psychosis. Despite the mitigating circumstances of Cook’s abusive upbringing, he was executed by the state of Arizona in August.
  4. No Executions In Georgia (or Alabama, or Louisiana, or Missouri) – On September 21, the anniversary of Troy Davis’ execution reminded us of that low point when the Peach State put a man to death despite serious doubts about his guilt. But Georgia has not executed a single inmate since then and in April issued a rare grant of clemency to Daniel Greene, on the basis of his remorse and model behavior in prison.
  5. No Death Sentences In North Carolina (or South Carolina, or Virginia) – This year, for the first time since 1977, North Carolina did not hand down a single death sentence. The state did take a step backwards by gutting the Racial Justice Act – a law designed to expose racial bias in capital cases. But the law is still alive, and just this month a North Carolina judge commuted three death sentences based on such demonstrated racial bias.
  6. Texas: Few Death Sentences, But More Racial Disparities – 2012 saw only nine people sentenced to death in Texas. Yet eight of the nine were people of color. (In fact, over the last five years, nearly three-fourths of those sentenced to death in Texas has been people of color.) Also, nearly 75% of those executed in Texas in 2012 (11 out of 15) were people of color. As Texas’ use of the death penalty shrinks, is more racial bias being exposed?
  7. Public Support Declines, But U.S. Position As Global Outlier Remains – In May, a Gallup “values and beliefs” survey found that only 58% of respondents said the death penalty was morally acceptable, down from 65% last year.  Yet, the U.S. has once again joined North Korea, China, Syria, and 35 other countries in opposing the UN General Assembly’s non-binding resolution calling for a global moratorium on executions.

It is clear that in 2012 the United States of America continued to be extremely conflicted about the death penalty. Its use and its support are diminishing, in some places more than others. And as we wrestle with the bigger question of our culture of violence, it is likely that we will see more state repeals, more clemencies, and in general more evidence that the death penalty’s time is coming to an end.