Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Keystones and Buckeyes and the Prairie State

Let's look at some numbers.
  • 37 - US jurisdictions with the death penalty (35 states, federal government, military)
  • 15 - States without the death penalty (add DC and Puerto Rico for 17 jurisdictions, subtract 1/2 for New Mexico which abolished the death penalty prospectively but left 2 men on the row)
  • 1237 - Executions in the US since 1976 when the Supreme Court said some death penalty laws were constitutional
  • 46 - Number of executions in the US in 2010
  • 3 - Number so far in 2011
  • 3261 - Number of men and women on death row across the country as of January 1, 2011
  • 2 - Number of states that have repealed the death penalty legislatively in recent decades (New Jersey & New Mexico)
  • 1 - Number of states where the death penalty can be repealed immediately if the governor will sign the bill (Illinois)
  • 50 - Number of states in which, if they have the death penalty, there are efforts to abolish it or at least reduce it's use and in which, if they don't have the death penalty, there are efforts to establish it.  Not all the efforts (in either direction) have any near term chance of success, and some are far more serious than others, but there's not a state that doesn't have somebody working on changing its status.
The main focus of attention on these issues right now is Illinois, of course, where abolition sits on Governor Quinn's desk.  He can sign it or not.  There are organized (and disorganized) efforts from abolitionists and retentionists.  He ain't talking.
But elsewhere there are some interesting things.  New Jersey has at least three bills offered that would reinstate the death penalty.  If one should make it through the legislature, which seems unlikely but a recent cop killing might give some legs, the Governor would probably sign in a heartbeat.
The new Governor of New Mexico would sign a reinstatement bill, too, but the legislature hasn't changed and there's nothing new in the landscape there.
Maryland's Senate President is trying to figure out how to jumpstart killing in that state which has been held up administratively.
And then there's Pennsylvania where Governor Rendell, on his way out of office, signed 6 execution warrants.  The 6 are no surprise.  Rendell's been more than willing over his 8 years as Governor.  He signed, in fact, a total of 119 execution warrants.  The thing is, he hasn't gotten to oversee even a single killing.  Not one.  The frustration is palpable.  So along with signing off on the effort to try and get 6 guys killed, he wrote a letter to the members of the legislature.
As a former district attorney and death-penalty supporter, I believe the death penalty can be a deterrent - but only when it is carried out relatively expeditiously.
But Pennsylvania doesn't do that.
However, a 15-, 20-, or 25-year lapse between imposition of a death sentence and the actual execution is no deterrent.
It's time, he says, to rethink the whole thing.  Either speed it up, or abolish it and provide for an absolute sentence of death in prison. 

Rendell Death Penalty Letter                                                            
There's a refreshing realism to Rendell's point.  If you have a killing system that doesn't work, why pretend.  Either make it work, or do away with it.
Which brings us (or at least it's the stop before I take this post) to Ohio and Supreme Court Justice Paul Pfeifer.  Pfeifer's an interesting guy in this context.  He was head of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1981 when the committee debated and Ohio adopted its current death penalty law.  He helped write it.  He's known, or at least regularly referred to in the press, as "the father of Ohio's death penalty."  Since 1992, he's been a justice on the Ohio Supreme Court, reviewing every death sentence in the state.  And he's consistently been the justice most likely to vote to reverse death sentences.  The law, he's said repeatedly, was designed to be narrow in focus and used only in extreme cases.  To his dismay, it's been applied way more broadly than he ever intended.
None of this is new.  Back in May, Pfeifer called for a blue-ribbon commission to examine every death sentence in the state to see which, if any, would be a death case by today's standards.  (I wrote about that plan here and here.)  He emphasized at the time that he was not opposed to the death penalty.  He just thought it wasn't being used as it should.
Well, maybe that's changing.  AP reporter Andrew Welsh-Huggins says Pfeifer is calling for abolition.
An Ohio Supreme Court justice who helped write the state’s death penalty law three decades ago and has more recently questioned its interpretation called Tuesday for an end to capital punishment in the state.
Justice Paul Pfeifer also said Gov. John Kasich and any future governor should consider commuting the sentences of Ohio’s death row inmates to life without parole.

“These are important matters that need all of our thoughtful attention — need the attention of the Legislature to consider seriously whether we’re well-served by this statute any longer,” he said in remarks following his swearing-in ceremony.

“The time has come for us to make that change,” Pfeifer said
Pfeifer's is a powerful voice and I'm glad that he's finally come to admit that the experiment he launched 30 years ago should be stopped.  But as with Justices Brennan and Marshall, and later Justice Blackmun, and then Justice Stevens, he's but a voice.  Not enough.  Our new Governor, John Kasich, supports the death penalty.   Our old Governor Ted, who as best I can figure out might as well have flipped coins, could have come close to emptying death row as he left office.  He commuted a bunch of sentences but didn't touch any of the folks on the row.
Frank Spisak is due to be murdered on February 17.  Johnny Baston is to be killed March 10.  There's every reason to think those dates will hold.  The Ohio Supreme Court has requests for more dates.  Whatever Justice Pfeifer thinks, it's likely his court will schedule killings, one every 3-4 weeks, for the rest of the year.  And the year after.  And the year after that.
Ohio's death row is shrinking from both ends.  We're killing more of the ones who are on the row.  But we're also putting fewer there.  According to another version of the AP story, Pfeifer sees a lesson in that.
He says the recent decrease in death sentences is a sign society believes life sentences are punishment enough.
Ed Rendell and Paul Pfeifer.  They have little in common that I can see.  But they've both concluded, in different ways and for different reasons, that their state's death penalty system isn't working the way they'd hoped.
Rendell still holds out some hope that Pennsylvania's can do what he thinks it should.  He's wrong about that, but right about the alternative.  If it can't be fixed, shut it down.
Pfeifer knows Ohio's system can't do what he once hoped and thought it could.  Since it can't be fixed, shut it down.
Two more voices in the wilderness.
Governor Quinn?  You listening?

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