Death penalty not living up to expectations
BY JULIE DELCOUR Associate Editor
Sunday, January 06, 2013
1/06/13 at 3:38 AM
Here's where capital punishment stands in America: 33 states and the federal government authorize it. Gallup and Pew Research Center polls show public support at above 60 percent. So reports that the death penalty is on its death bed are exaggerated, or are they?
Since 2005, five states have abolished the death penalty and California came close to doing so in November, Proposition 34 losing by four percentage points. Nearly 35 years ago, a law reinstating the death penalty there passed by 82 percent. In the years since, the death penalty has cost the state about $4 billion and California has not carried out a single execution in seven years and only 13 since the law went into effect.
Last fall, for the first time in its 155-year history, the Sacramento Bee opposed the death penalty editorially, calling it "an illusion," and saying:
"We need to end the fiction - the sooner the better. The state's death penalty is an outdated, flawed and expensive system of punishment that needs to be replaced with a rock-solid sentence of life imprisonment with no chance of parole."
More evidence that a gradual retreat from the death penalty is under way can be found in the number of new inmates added to state death rows. In 2000, 224 defendants received a death sentence compared with 77 in 2012, the second lowest since the death penalty was reinstituted in 1976. (There were 76 inmates sentenced to death in 2011).
In 1996 - a year in which the most death sentences occurred in modern times - only 18 percent of the public opposed capital punishment. That same year Congress passed a sweeping crime bill limiting habeas appeals for death-row inmates. Since 1998, however, the number of death sentences started to steadily decline.
But not in Oklahoma, which, with 102 executions since 1976, has the highest number of executions per capita in the nation, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center. Texas leads the nation in executions with 493, trailed by Virginia, 109, and then Oklahoma.
Three-quarters of the 43 people put to death in 2012 were in four states: Texas (15), Oklahoma (6), Arizona (6), and Mississippi (6). Last year only nine states with the death penalty carried out executions and almost all were in the southern region of the U.S. The Northeast carried out none and the West and Midwest only a handful each. In the past two years, only 14 states carried out executions and they all were primarily in the South.
Why is the death penalty being imposed and carried out less? The short answer is that the death penalty hasn't lived up to expectations. Statistics suggest that it's failed as a crime deterrent. Contrary to the predictions of some death penalty proponents, the murder rate in the U.S. has declined even as the death penalty has been used less. Since 2000, when the murder rate was 5.5 murders per 100,000 people, the rate has declined about 15 percent to 4.7. The lowest murder rate among the four geographical regions was in the Northeast, which uses the death penalty the least. The highest rate was in the South, which executes the most inmates.
- In the past few years, as states faced crushing budget woes, questions abound about the cost of maintaining the death penalty, which is prohibitively expensive. It costs far more to prosecute death penalty cases, and appeals range from $1 million to $3 million per inmate. Plus, there is the cost of maintaining death rows.
- The death penalty always has been criticized as unfair, being applied disproportionately to minorities and the poor. There also is the nagging concern - based on the 140 inmates exonerated, including 10 in Oklahoma - that someone will be put to death in error.
- Questions about the morality of the death penalty continue, with many believing it is intrinsically wrong. Some family members of victims have said the execution provided a sense of closure and justice. But others don't feel the sense of relief they thought that they'd feel. That might be owed in part to how long it takes for cases to wend their way through the system. Among the inmates executed last year, most inmates spent more than 20 years on death row.
All the above factors could explain why so few states actually executed anyone last year. One of those executions occurred May 1 in Oklahoma when Michael Selsor, 57, died by lethal injection. Of the 43 inmates executed in 2012, Selsor had spent the longest time from conviction to appeal - an astonishing 36 years. Shortly after he was sentenced in 1976, his death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment when the U.S. Supreme Court declared the state's mandatory death penalty statute unconstitutional. Selsor repeatedly asked for a new trial and his conviction was overturned in 1996 by a federal appeals court. In 1998, he again was convicted and again sentenced to death in the 1975 shooting death of Tulsa convenience store manager Clayton Chandler, 55.
In Oklahoma, the death penalty still is widely favored despite questions surrounding its use and its huge cost.
No one seems to know how much keeping the death penalty is costing Oklahomans at a time when the state has struggled mightily to fund core services, including education. In recent years a handful of lawmakers, throwing political caution to the wind, dared to ask if the needs of so many should be sacrificed to pay for punishment of so few? Why not go to a cheaper life-without-parole system?
The answer to their question still deserves an answer.
Original Print Headline: Lethal rejection?
Julie DelCour 918-581-8379