The Four Biggest Death Penalty Trends in 2010

December 21, 2010

Execution witness viewing room (c) Scott Langley

The Death Penalty Information Center released its Year End Report today.  While there were no major turning points for the U.S. death penalty in 2010, the unworkable and degrading nature of capital punishment continued to reveal itself throughout the year.  There were lots of executions early – the first three executions took place on the same day, January 7 – but the pace slowed considerably, and the last two months of the year saw only two executions total.  There were 46 executions in all, in twelve different states.  Here are four major themes that emerged in 2010.

1. TEXAS AND OHIO LEAD THE (WRONG) WAY:  Texas, as usual, led the way with 17 executions (though this was significantly down from last year), while Ohio put 8 men to death.  Ohio’s execution proliferation caused one judge, Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul E. Pfeifer, who also happens to be one of the people who wrote Ohio’s death penalty law, to worry that his state was becoming too much like Texas, and to call for all death sentences in the state to get a second look.  He told the Columbus Dispatch: “There are probably few people in Ohio that are proud of the fact we are executing people at the same pace as Texas.”

No such second guessing was allowed in Texas, where a hearing looking into whether Cameron Todd Willingham might have been wrongfully executed and another hearing considering whether the danger of executing the innocent made Texas’ death penalty unconstitutional were both put on ice by state appeals courts. One or both of these important hearings could resume in 2011, but it is more likely that the Texas death penalty will continue to skate by without serious examination, despite the exonerations and wrongful executions we already know have happened.  (Silver lining: The Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty reports that there were just 8 death sentences in the Lone Star State in 2010, the lowest since capital punishment was re-instated in 1976.)

2. STATES SKIRT THE LAW TO GET EXECUTION DRUGS:  Of course the biggest (or at least weirdest) news in U.S. capital punishment in 2010 may have had to do with the shortage of sodium thiopental, the first drug in the three-drug “cocktail” most states employ in their executions.

This shortage created all sorts of complications, beginning with the drug’s manufacturer, Hospira, pleading with states to stop using it for executions. Heedless of the manufacturer’s wishes, states went to great lengths to get their lethal injection drug fix, violating FDA regulations to score supplies of the drug from Europe,  or from other states, while trying to keep information about their drug sources secret from the taxpaying public. As we move into 2011 questions about all this – when production of the drug might resume in the U.S., whether meanwhile it can be imported from a Hospira plant in Italy, or from a different manufacturer in the UK – remain thoroughly unresolved.

3. CRUEL EXECUTIONS AND INSPIRED CLEMENCIES:  Two prisoners in 2010 chose to be executed by means other than lethal injection (Ronald Lee Gardner in Utah, who picked the firing squad,and Paul Warner Powell in Virginia, who chose the electric chair), one (Gerald Bordelon in Louisiana) volunteered to give up his appeals and be put to death, and two more were executed after their respective states rescued them from failed suicide attempts (Lawrence Reynolds in Ohio, and Brandon Rhode in Georgia).  The pointless cruelty of the death penalty was put on full display in September when one woman, Teresa Lewis, was executed for a crime over which she was supposedly the “mastermind”, despite her 72 IQ.

But another woman, Gaile Owens in Tennessee, was granted clemency, her sentence commuted to life WITH parole. Clemencies were granted in a few other cases (one in Oklahoma – Richard Smith – and three in Ohio: Richard Nields, Sidney Cornwell, and Kevin Keith).  Notably, in the case of Kevin Keith, Ohio’s Governor Ted Strickland asserted his belief that Keith was guilty but granted relief anyway, because he couldn’t be sure.

Innocence matters. (c) Scott Langley

4. WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU CAN’T BE SURE:  Governor Strickland’s approach was the exact opposite of what was adopted at the Troy Davis hearing in June (the most anticipated death penalty hearing of the year), where Davis was required to absolutely prove his innocence before the court would consider taking his execution off the table.  The Troy Davis case may reach its final resolution in 2011 as the Supreme Court could take up his appeal of the lower court ruling as early as March, and we can hope that the logic of Ohio’s Governor – that to protect the innocent you can’t allow executions when there are doubts about guilt – will ultimately prevail.

In 2010, as executions continued (but in only a dozen states), as states resorted to secretive (and probably illegal) drug purchases to feed their execution habit, and as authorities grappled in futility with (or, in the case of Texas, ignored) the challenge of guaranteeing that no innocent person will be executed, it is not surprising that a poll of 1500 registered voters released late this year found that support for alternatives outweighs support for the death penalty by a 2-1 margin.    Americans are no longer sure about capital punishment at all.  The death penalty did not come to an end in 2010, but signs of its decline were everywhere.