Death sentences plunge in U.S.; Texas again No. 1 in executions
New death sentences plummeted this year and the number of executions carried out continued a decade-long decline, a sign of the "growing discomfort" that many Americans have with the death penalty, according to a new report.
The country's courts have imposed 78 death sentences in 2011, down from 112 last year and the smallest number in any year since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit, Washington-based research organization.
In California, the state with the largest death-row population, death sentences plunged by more than half to 10 this year, down from 29 in 2010.
Nationwide, there were 43 executions in 2011, according to the report, three fewer than in 2010. The number in 2009 was 52. Which state led the way?
Texas had the most executions this year with 13, down from 17 in 2010 and nearly half the number of 2009, 24. No. 2 was Alabama with six, compared with five in 2010. Ohio ranked third, with five executions, down from eight last year.
Death penalty controversy has swirled in Texas this year around the case of Duane Buck, convicted of killing two people in 1995. In his case's sentencing phase, a psychologist testified that blacks and Latinos were statistically more likely to commit future crimes and that being black "increases the future dangerousness" of an individual.
The Supreme Court issued a stay of execution in September after Buck, who is African American, alleged that race played an improper role in his sentencing. Last month, the high court declined to hear the case, lifting the stay and allowing the state to set a new execution date.
In September, at a debate of Republicans vying for the GOP presidential nomination, moderator Brian Williams noted that Texas Gov. Rick Perry had presided over 234 executions. That mention by Williams, in a prelude to a question for Perry, drew cheers from the audience.
As the Los Angeles Times reported:
Perry was asked whether he ever worried that the state had executed an innocent man. “I’ve never struggled with that at all. The state of Texas has a very thoughtful, a very clear process in place of which — when someone commits the most heinous of crimes against our citizens, they get a fair hearing, they go through an appellate process, they go up to the Supreme Court of the United States, if that’s required,” he said.
That answer from Perry drew further applause from the crowd. Of the crowd's reaction, the candidate said: “I think Americans are clearly, in the vast majority of — of cases, supportive of capital punishment.”
The Death Penalty Information Center's report appears to differ, citing a 2011 Gallup Poll indicating that support for capital punishment is at its lowest level -- and opposition is at its lowest level -- in nearly 40 years. The poll said 61% supported the death penalty, compared with 80% in 1994, while 35% were opposed, down from 16% in 1994.
The center pointed to the repeal of the death penalty by the Illinois Legislature in January and statements last month by Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, who halted an execution and said no more executions would take place during his time as governor.
The case of Troy Davis in Georgia also attracted worldwide attention. Davis was executed in September for the 1989 murder of an off-duty Georgia police officer. Several key witnesses in the case had recanted their testimony, spurring a fight to keep Davis alive. The campaign's supporters included South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Pope Benedict XVI and former FBI Director William Sessions. Davis denied guilt throughout, repeating "I am innocent" moments before the lethal injection was administered.
At the time, Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center told the Los Angeles Times that the Davis case could be a watershed moment in the fight to overturn the death penalty. Although the center does not take an official position on the death penalty, Dieter predicted that one day capital punishment would be banned in the U.S.
"Not tomorrow. But as long as you have such nagging problems about guilty and innocence continue, I think the death penalty is facing demise," he said.
-- Amy Hubbard+
Photo: U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), shown in 2009, reveals a T-shirt supporting Troy Davis, who was convicted of killing a police officer in 1989. In foreground is Martina Correia, Davis' sister. Davis was executed this fall. Credit: Paul Abell / Associated Press