The death penalty is dying. Fewer death sentences are being pronounced and fewer are being pursued, as prosecutors find America’s juries increasingly uncomfortable with the failures in the system.
Seeing that 130 innocent people have suffered being charged, tried, convicted and sentenced to death in the last 35 years only to be exonerated and freed ultimately, jurors are less likely today to condemn another to die.
In 2000, Governor George Ryan of Illinois found that his state had executed 12 people in the 23 years since their death penalty was reinstated, but in the same period had exonerated 13. Stunned, Ryan, a self-described death-penalty-supporting conservative, declared a moratorium on state killing and established a bipartisan commission to examine and fix the system.
Finding his legislature unwilling to follow the commission’s recommendations by the end of his term, Ryan studied each case and shocked the political world by releasing four additional men he found innocent and commuting the remaining 167 death row prisoners to life without parole.
A thunderclap in the world of politics, Ryan’s actions generated the establishment of like commissions across the country. This has ripped the masks of respectability, efficiency and fairness off a torturous system that fails every test of civilized behavior, and exposed a politically-driven death machine that is racist in application, is only used against the poor and poorly defended, and entraps and kills the innocent and the mentally ill while costing taxpayers two to three times as much as does permanent incarceration.
Last year, due to the work of just such a commission, the New Jersey became the first state in the modern era to abolish the death penalty, joining the thirteen other U.S. states that do not kill. In June, a commission in California found that its death system was costing taxpayers $100 million per year and needed improvements that would cost another $95 million a year, this while having executed 13 people in 29 years. Last month a commission in Maryland found the same problems in its system and recommended abolition.
The death penalty is dying. And when it does, we will leave the company of China, Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia and join the rest of the modern world that has long since abolished state killing.