Monday, January 04, 2010

Philadelphia Inquirer: Death Row Diminished

The following editorial was published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on January 4, 2010.

Editorial: Death row diminished

States are sentencing fewer defendants to death, a likely result of a system that is increasingly costly and unreliable.

Nationwide last year, the fewest death sentences were handed out - 106 - since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. It is the seventh straight year of decline. Ten years ago, 284 defendants were sentenced to death.

Since the use of DNA evidence has become more prevalent, it is growing clearer with each passing year that the death penalty is unreliable. Since 1973, 139 people have been freed from death row, primarily due to to irrefutable scientific evidence of their innocence. Ninety-one of those condemned prisoners have been released since 1993.

Nine men were freed from death row last year alone, after spending a combined 121 years behind bars for crimes they did not commit.

A system that sentences 139 innocent people to death cannot be counted on to deliver justice fairly. Those 139 defendants avoided execution, but there's convincing evidence that at least one person, Cameron Todd Willingham of Texas, was put to death in 2004 for arson deaths that turned out not to be a case of arson at all. Undoubtedly there have been more like him.

Eleven states last year considered abolishing the death penalty; New Mexico was the only one of those states to outlaw capital punishment. New Jersey abolished it in 2007, after spending more than $200 million on a system that executed no prisoners.

Thirty-five states, including Pennsylvania and Delaware, still have the death penalty. But of those 35, only 11 carried out executions in 2009. Nearly half of them occurred in Texas.

The number of executions rose in 2009 to 52, from 37 the previous year. But that was largely due to an unofficial moratorium for several months in 2008 while the Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of lethal injections. The number of executions last year was 47 percent lower than 10 years ago.

Pennsylvania has executed three men since 1976, none since Gary Heidnick in 1999. Twice as many people, six, have been freed from death row during that time because they were innocent. Since 1983, 21 death-row inmates in the state died of natural causes or suicide.

Yet the state has the fourth-largest death row in the nation, with 225 inmates as of July 1. And the cost of maintaining the capital-punishment system is enormous. A study in Maryland in 2008 estimated that the average cost to taxpayers of each case in which a death sentence was imposed was $3 million.

The death penalty is costly and unreliable, but it is not a deterrent. Texas, which leads the nation in executions, had a murder rate in 2008 of 5.6 per 100,000 population - the same rate as Pennsylvania. New Jersey and New York, which no longer have the death penalty, have murder rates of 4.3 per 100,000. Massachusetts, also without capital punishment, has a murder rate of 2.6 per 100,000.

Of the states that don't have capital punishment, only Michigan had a murder rate higher than 5.0.

The death penalty is too costly, it jeopardizes innocent people, and it doesn't deter crime. Increasingly, judges and juries are coming to the same sensible conclusion.

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