Is the Death Penalty On Its Way Out?

A few weeks ago, Billy Slagle, an inmate in Ohio, made a noose and used it to kill himself prior to his planned execution. Slagle died a day before his lawyers were scheduled to go to court so that they could try to stop his impending execution. He received the death penalty when he was 18 years old.

There are more than 3,000 prisoners on death row in the country. Texas has one of the highest numbers of death row inmates, with more than 700 awaiting execution. So far this year, there have been 23 executions across the country. In contrast to the 1990s, this decade has seen a decrease in the number of executions. Therefore, it is likely that the number of executions will continue to decrease in the decades ahead.

In 1972, the Supreme Court struck down the death penalty because of concern over the arbitrary way that it was administered up to that point. Four years later, however, it was reinstated, and since then, more than a thousand people have been put to death.  

Last month, Douglas Feldman was executed by lethal injection for killing two truckers in Dallas. Feldman was the 11th person put to death in Texas this year. Many more death row inmates are still scheduled to die this year in the Lone Star State.

For many years, Texas has led the way when it comes to executions. Sadly, some people who were executed might have been innocent. Cameron Todd Willingham, who was put to death in 1992, is a prime example. The state is also notorious for the incompetence advocates that it often provides to low income defendants in death penalty cases. For instance, there have been cases where the court-appointed lawyers “fell asleep” during the court proceedings. Despite the abysmal performance of their lawyers, these defendants still receive the death penalty. Even worse, these defendants rarely, if ever, win on appeal because of ineffective representation. Those who are tasked to review such cases deem sleeping lawyers to be adequate representation.

The good news, however, is that many states are moving away from the death penalty. New Jersey and Illinois are two examples. Concerned that his state might have put to death someone who was innocent, former Illinois Governor George Ryan placed a moratorium on the death penalty in 2000. About a decade later, the new governor, Pat Quinn, put the final death nail on the death penalty by abolishing it completely. Even before Illinois took this historic step, New Jersey has been at the forefront of the abolishment movement. In 2007, the Garden State was the first state to put an end to the practice.

This decrease in the penalty's use has not happened by accident. There are two major factors that are fueling this change. First, there have been a number of advocates who argued for decades that the death penalty is not a deterrent against crime. More importantly, the advent of DNA technology has helped to cast doubt on the guilt of many defendants who have been on death row. The shocking revelations that many death row inmates could be innocent has been a key factor in undermining support for the death penalty. In the years ahead, if current trends hold, it is highly likely that more and more states will follow the lead of New Jersey and Illinois.