WASHINGTON — Only nine states executed death row inmates in 2012 and the number of new death sentences, at 78, was nearly the lowest number of new sentences issued since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center’s year-end report, released Tuesday.
The punishment also came under attack this year from advocates in California, who narrowly lost a death penalty repeal campaign headlined by supportive district attorneys, judges, victims’ families and former prison officials.
Based on these trends, says Richard Dieter, executive director of the center, “the death penalty appears to be an increasingly irrelevant component of our criminal justice system. It still exists, but as far as using it as a response to crime, it’s not the norm and it’s not carried out uniformly across the country.”
While the trend of the last 10 years shows that death sentences and executions are declining, one state did act this year to speed up its death penalty process. In May, South Dakota passed legislation limiting death row inmates to one post-conviction appeal, which must be filed within two years of their convictions. The state executed two people this year, its first executions since 2007.
North Carolina also could buck the trend in the coming year. Republicans are now in control of the governor’s mansion and both legislative chambers. They have vowed to repeal the state’s Racial Justice Act, which allows death row inmates to challenge their death sentences based on statewide statistical evidence that could show racial bias played a role in their sentencing or in jury selection. The state’s unique Racial Justice Act opened the door to appeals for nearly all of the state’s 165 death row inmates and has stopped all executions in North Carolina. Republicans and district attorneys have called it a “back-door deal to end the death penalty.”
A repeal of the act could potentially lead to new executions in the state, which has not carried out an execution in six years.
In California, following the defeat of the death penalty repeal effort, advocates are pushing for the state to speed up its death penalty system to move toward executing death row inmates. Change in that direction is unlikely, however, given that the state has a Democratic supermajority in both legislative chambers and a governor who voted to abolish the death penalty.
Any attempt to speed up the death penalty process, says Dieter, will force states to spend money and resources hiring more lawyers and judges to hear death row inmates’ cases. For instance, in California, death row inmates are not granted a lawyer for their post-conviction appeals for at least four years after they are initially sentenced, says Dieter, because there are too few court-appointed lawyers to go around. Any attempt to speed up the process would require more attention and money from the state.
While the possible exception in North Carolina could mean a few more executions in the coming year, Dieter expects that the overall trends of fewer death sentences, fewer executions and more states abolishing the death penalty will continue. Legislators and governors in Colorado, Maryland and New Hampshire appear poised to support abolition of capital punishment in the coming year.
“The death penalty is viewed as a net cost even when you’re not having executions,” Dieter says. “You also have the underlying fear that you might make a mistake and execute an innocent person. Since it’s not even being used, many see it as an outmoded or outdated program that is draining resources.”