In U.S., time to end the death penalty?

Thane Rosenbaum in Reuters, July 15, 2011

Media Source

by Bernd Debusmann

America’s system of meting out death sentences is unfair and arbitrary. Race, money and politics play major roles. Since society’s ultimate punishment cannot be applied fairly, it should not be applied at all.

So says a report timed to coincide with the re-instatement of capital punishment in the United States 35 years ago this July, after a four-year suspension prompted by a Supreme Court ruling that the death penalty was being administered so arbitrarily and capriciously that it amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. As a result, many states rewrote their laws and when the Supreme Court returned to the issue in 1976, it said the new statutes had taken the randomness out of the system. Did they?

Not according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington-based non-profit organization which has been keeping track of capital punishment for more than two decades. Its report concludes that the death penalty, post-1976, “has proven to be a failed experiment. The theory that with proper guidance to juries the death penalty could be administered fairly has not worked in practice. Thirty-five years of experience have taught the futility of trying to fix this system.”

The Death Penalty Information Center is not alone in viewing the system too broken to fix. In March, when Illinois became the 16th U.S. state without a death penalty, Governor Pat Quinn, a Democrat and long-time supporter of capital punishment, said: “I have concluded that our system of imposing the death penalty is inherently flawed. The evidence presented to me by former prosecutors and judges … has convinced me that it is impossible to devise a system that is consistent, that is free of discrimination on the basis of race, geography or economic circumstance, and that always gets it right.”

Similar views prompted New York and New Jersey to abolish the death penalty in 2007 and New Mexico in 2009. World-wide, capital punishment has been in steady decline and now only five developed nations practice it. The United States, where the number of executions has been shrinking since a 1999 peak of 98, remains one of the world’s top executioners.

In 2010, it ranked fifth, after China, Iran, North Korea and Yemen, ahead of Saudi Arabia and Libya. This is not the kind of group that fits the average American’s image of his or her country as a place a class above the dictatorships and human rights violators most active in handing out death sentences.

Capital punishment in America is reserved, at least in theory, for the “worst of the worst” but a series of studies show that the practice is different. For example: In 2003, the worst serial killer in U.S. history, Gary Ridgway, pleaded guilty to murdering 48 people in the state of Washington. He was sentenced to life without parole and spared the death sentence in return for detailed information on the young women he strangled over a 20-year period.


In Virginia, Justin Wolfe was convicted of murder-for-hire in the killing of a drug dealer and sentenced to death in 2002. A federal judge overturned the conviction this week, nine years after Wolfe was sent to death row, ruling that prosecutors had ignored or withheld evidence and “stifled a vigorous truth-seeking process.”

How consistently such a process can flourish in the adversarial U.S. justice system is open to debate. Thane Rosenbaum (, a law professor at New York’s Fordham University, has described courtroom wrangling as “winner-take-all, scorch the earth contests that make America’s trials similar to its sporting spectacles.”

Except that the stakes are higher in the courtroom. There, wrongful convictions are not isolated events but stem from systemic defects, according to The Innocence Project, a New York-based organization that has been using DNA testing to win the freedom of people behind bars or on death row.

Seventeen of the 272 people exonerated through DNA since 1989 had been sentenced to death. Scores of others on death row have had their sentences overturned (and in most cases changed to life imprisonment) on appeal. In both state and federal courts, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, appellate reviews find that mistakes were made in two-thirds of the cases.

Which throws question marks over the notion of a fair process of narrowing down tens of thousands of eligible cases to the “worst of the worst” and helps explain why death sentences and executions have dropped nation-wide by about 50 percent since 2000. Less than one in a hundred murders draws a death sentence and far fewer end in an execution.

Even in Texas, America’s leading executioner, the number of convicted killers put to death has declined over the past few years. So is it time to drop capital punishment and join most of the rest of the world, where a life behind bars is considered the ultimate punishment?