November 9, 2007
In 2007 a number of state courts, and the Supreme Court decided to consider whether or not lethal injection constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Both Mississippi and Nevada's Supreme Courts have halted executions, and some court watchers believe that the Supreme Court's decision to hear a lethal injection case may cause additional states to at least temporarily halt executions. Currently, 38 states and the Federal government have capital statutes, but in 2006, only 14 states executed inmates 53 inmates were executed, 7 fewer than in 2005.
Although the number of inmates executed and being sentenced to death in the United States has dropped in the last five years, that doesn't mean American's approval of the death penalty necessarily has waned. Gallup's annual update on Americans' attitudes toward crime shows no diminution in Americans' strong support for the death penalty in cases of murder 69% "generally in line with the level of support that Gallup has measured since 1999. (When the alternative "life imprisonment, with absolutely no possibility of parole" is offered support for the death penalty drops to 47% to 54%.)
Capital Punishment Around the Globe
International trends have left the United States virtually alone among democracies to impose the death penalty with frequency. In 2007 the European Union unequivocally stated its opposition hosting an international conference dedicated to its eradication. Indeed, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's name has been removed from his Austrian hometown Graz' Web sites as well as from the city's main football stadium because of his refusal to grant clemency to a death row inmate. As of 2006, 90 countries had entirely abolished the death penalty. According to Amnesty International at least 1,591 people were executed in 2006. (The total number for China is believed to be much higher than the 1,010 reported.) Amnesty notes that 91% of all known executions took place in China, Iran, Pakistan, Iraq, Sudan and the United States.
Capital Punishment in History
Capital punishment dates to ancient times it is mentioned in one of the oldest existing set of laws, the Code of Hammurabi, dating from around 1750 B.C. In 1608 George Kendall was executed in Jamestown, Virginia Colony. Historians estimate that since that time more than 20,000 people have been put to death in the United States. The movement to abolish the death penalty dates from 18th century Enlightenment Europe. By the 1840s some U.S. states had begun to grant juries the discretion to impose life sentences rather than the death penalty. The number of executions in the U.S. dropped over time, as the number of capital offenses were reduced.
In the 1972 case of Furman v. Georgia, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that capital punishment was unconstitutional as then practiced, because it was applied disproportionately to certain classes of defendants, notably those who were black or poor. This ruling voided the federal and state death penalty laws. However it allowed state legislatures and Congress to write and enact new capital punishment laws.
In Gregg v. Georgia (1976), the Supreme Court allowed capital punishment to resume, ruling that the penalty did not constitute "cruel and unusual punishment" under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Today, 38 states and the federal government have reinstituted the death penalty. In a landmark 2005 case the Supreme Court ruled that applying the death penalty to offenders under the age of 18 is unconstitutionally cruel, ending the practice nationwide.
Recent U.S. Legislation
The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (also known as AEDPA), passed following the Oklahoma City bombing, imposed a limit for all appeals relating to the right to writ of habeas corpus in capital cases and reduces the length of the appeal process by limiting the role of the federal courts. (A writ of habeas corpus is a judicial mandate to a prison official ordering that an inmate be brought to the court so it can be determined whether or not that person is imprisoned lawfully and whether or not he should be released from custody.) The law also created a barrier for the filing of second or successive petitions in federal court. (Read the law.)
In 2004 Congress passed the Innocence Protection Act, in part in response to exonerations of death row inmates due to advances in DNA technology. The Innocence Protection Act (IPA) is part of the larger Justice for All Act. The law authorizes funds to test a nationwide backlog of more than 300,000 rape kits and other crime scene evidence, funding for victims' services through grants to prosecutor and defender offices, access to post-conviction DNA testing for those serving time in prison or on death row for crimes they did not commit, and it authorizes grants to states to improve the quality of death penalty trials as well as assist families of murder victims. (Read the Justice for All Act.)
In addition to the court cases challenging lethal injection mentioned above the growing number of death row exonerations from DNA evidence have caused a number of states to address evidence issues with new legislation and new mandatory procedures.
Published on November 9, 2007