At A Criminal Enterprise a couple of weeks ago, Bidish Sarma wrote about the latest Gallup poll numbers showing that most people believed that we execute innocent people and most of those folks still continue to favor the death penalty. I wrote in response that polling data has its limitations.
The concrete jury room with a live defendant outside the door calls the question in a way the abstraction of a pollster's query cannot.
And I ran some numbers demonstrating that death sentences, in Ohio and elsewhere, are down. Matt Kelly linked to both of our posts in one of his own, captioning it with the question I was raising, "Will Juries Kill the Death Penalty?" His point is plain.
It could be a quiet revolution in the jury room, rather than a dramatic shift in public opinion, that brings the death penalty to a grinding halt.
I'm wary of prediction, but with the release of DPIC's annual report, "The Death Penalty in 2009: Year End Report," we have this year's numbers, and they tell an encouraging story. The accompanying press release gets to the heart of it.
The country is expected to finish 2009 with the fewest death sentences since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, according to a report released today by the Death Penalty Information Center. Eleven states considered abolishing the death penalty this year, a significant increase in legislative activity from previous years, as the high costs and lack of measurable benefits associated with this punishment troubled lawmakers. . . .
“The annual number of death sentences in the U.S. has dropped for seven straight years and is 60% less than in the 1990s,” said Richard Dieter, the report’s author and DPIC’s executive director. “In the last two years, three states have abolished capital punishment and a growing number of states are asking whether it's worth keeping. This entire decade has been marked by a declining use of the death penalty." There were 106 death sentences in 2009 compared with a high of 328 in 1994.
Kent Scheidegger and Doug Berman, both quoted in today's NY Times story on the report, both manage not to see any real trends in these numbers, which I guess shows again that you can find in statistics whatever you look for. The trend is there. The question is whether it keeps up.
There remains a down side, of course. Actual executions increased in 2009. I think that's mostly because 2008 had the moratorium due to Baze v. Rees, but it's also a caution. As the AP reports, Texas and Ohio have each already scheduled 6 killings for 2010.
In the Agricola, Tacitus quotes Calgacus, energizing the barbarian troops with warnings about how the Roman legions work:
To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace.
That passage got a fair amount of play during the Vietnam War. But it also says something about the way this system is working. Death sentences are down. Executions and exonerations are up. Death row is shrinking. It may wither away in time.
But the body count is real. The corpses pile up. And on the row they cry out Monty Python lines but in supplication and anger and bitterness and hope, not for laughs:
I'm not dead yet.
We've made progress, but there's a long way to go.