By Alan Bean
Yesterday Connecticut became the 17th state to abolish the death penalty. That’s good news. But not great news.
As this helpful article in the New York Times points out: “the death penalty is largely being abolished where it is not being imposed and remains largely untouched where it is. And the death penalty map is beginning to resemble the familiar red state-blue state one.”
Specifically, “The number of executions nationally dropped to 43 last year from 98 in 1998. Since executions resumed in 1976 after being halted by the Supreme Court, there have been 1,060 in the South, 150 in the Midwest, 75 in the West and 4 in the Northeast.”
If you want to know if a person is likely to pull the blue or red lever at election time, ask for an opinion on the death penalty. It’s as good a single issue indicator as you are likely to find.
On the other hand, support for the death penalty is falling, largely, I would argue, because the homicide rate has been dropping since 1993. When support for the death penalty briefly dipped below 50% in the early 1960s, the homicide rate was low by historical standards. Between the late 1960s and the mid-1990s, homicide rates exploded as did support for the death penalty.
As violent crime recedes, support for the ultimate penalty is softening. There were 24,530 murders in America in 1993; in 2010 there were only 14,748, just a few more than in 1969 when the US population was considerably smaller. In 1963, as support for the death penalty dipped below 50%, the nation saw only 8,640 murders.
Unfortunately, the death penalty is so popular in the South that we are unlikely to see abolition anytime soon. Although southern states are executing fewer people since the advent of life without parole laws, our prisons are filling up with old men who have lived most of their lives in prison and will die there. A growing number of lifers are still in their teens. Abolishing the death penalty is a laudable goal; but capital punishment isn’t the only symptom of a punitive consensus that has controlled American public policy for half a century.
The popularity of capital punishment in the states of the old Confederacy suggests there is more in play here than murder rates. In fact, if you take a map highlighting the rate of lynching during the Jim Crow era and superimpose it over a map showing the frequency of executions in the United States, the correspondence is almost exact. States that lynched a lot of people are now executing a lot of people. Is this merely a coincidence? Alas, it is not.
There were references to being a “tipping point” and reflecting a “paradigm shift” in the use of capital punishment when the State House voted this week to make Connecticut the 17th state — the 5th in five years — to eliminate the death penalty in future prosecutions.
“It’s definitely part of a larger trend, certainly with other states including New Jersey, New Mexico and Illinois abolishing executions through similar processes, and with a decline in executions around the country,” Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a national research group critical of the death penalty, said Thursday. “There’s less public support. So the trends are in the same direction.”
But even staunch death penalty opponents acknowledge that the vote was not indicative of a nationwide about-face. Rather, it was a reflection of capital punishment’s erosion in the Northeast, a trend toward fewer executions nationally and the intensification of the death penalty’s status as a phenomenon overwhelmingly rooted in the South.
The number of executions nationally dropped to 43 last year from 98 in 1998. Since executions resumed in 1976 after being halted by the Supreme Court, there have been 1,060 in the South, 150 in the Midwest, 75 in the West and 4 in the Northeast.
During that time, Connecticut had one execution, Michael Bruce Ross, a serial killer who was put to death in 2005.
So the death penalty is largely being abolished where it is not being imposed and remains largely untouched where it is. And the death penalty map is beginning to resemble the familiar red state-blue state one.
Still, the nine hours of impassioned debate in the Connecticut House on Wednesday reflected how deeply the issues surrounding capital punishment resonate.
“I am for the Connecticut death penalty because it is retribution which accomplishes justice,” the House minority leader, Lawrence Cafero Jr., a Republican from Norwalk, said Wednesday. “I am not for the Connecticut death penalty because it accomplishes revenge.”
The Connecticut vote and debate, particularly in the wake of the Petit family home invasion and murders in Cheshire, reflected a cautious political bargain and a public apparently reluctant to give up the death penalty completely. A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed that 62 percent of Connecticut residents thought repeal was “a bad idea.”
The bill, which Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a Democrat, said he would sign, does not apply to the 11 men now on death row, including the two Cheshire killers. Critics of the legislation, who are mostly Republican, called it hypocritical to outlaw capital punishment in the future while keeping it intact for those already sentenced.
“You either support the death penalty and taking somebody’s life or you don’t,” said Representative Themis Klarides, a Republican from Woodbridge. “You can’t support it for these guys, but not for these guys.”
Capital punishment is still an option in federal prosecutions, including in terrorism-related murder cases. Connecticut Republicans tried unsuccessfully on Wednesday to preserve the death penalty for terrorism cases prosecuted in state court, which tend to be less serious than those handled in federal court.
Death penalty opponents say Maryland could be the next state to repeal capital punishment. Kansas and Montana are among the states discussing it. California is likely to have a public referendum in November that will almost surely become the nation’s most high-profile debate over capital punishment.
The long-term strategy of death penalty opponents is to get more than half the states to repeal it and then file a challenge to the United States Supreme Court based on the Constitution’s prescriptions against “cruel and unusual punishment,” the second half of that dependent on only a minority of states employing it.
Still, 33 states and the federal government will maintain capital punishment after Connecticut’s abolition, and many of those are not receptive to repeal. Death penalty opponents also acknowledge that if the Supreme Court remains conservative, it is unlikely to embrace that argument.
Absent an improbable ban by the Supreme Court, death penalty opponents say it is hard to imagine anytime soon the end of capital punishment where it is most likely to be used.
“Nobody, not even the most pathological optimist, is saying abolition is right around the corner in any of the states of the old Confederacy,” said Denny LeBoeuf, the director of the ACLU Capital Punishment Project.