The death penalty has been in decline in America for a number of years – more and more states are banning it, the number of people executed has dwindled, and the number of states using the death penalty has decreased.
The Washington Post on New Year’s Day came out with an editorial: “The death penalty is unworthy of America.”
According to a year-end report from the Death Penalty Information Center, which tracks death penalty numbers, “Capital punishment continued to wither across the United States in 2019, disappearing completely in some regions and significantly eroding in others.”
New Hampshire became the 21st state to abolish the death penalty, while California became the fourth with a moratorium on executions.
The death penalty therefore is at historic lows, as states “conducted fewer than 30 executions and imposed fewer than 50 new death sentences for the fifth year in a row. Seven states executed a total of 22 prisoners in 2019. Thirty-four new death sentences were imposed, marking the second-lowest number in the modern era of capital punishment.”
Most of the executions come from the south – with most new death sentences coming from Florida.
The Post notes: “Death sentences are down some 90 percent from their mid-1990s peak. Executions are down some 77 percent from the late 1990s.”
But, as the Post notes, “the death penalty survives, as does the horrifying possibility that the government might kill an innocent person.”
Two more death-row inmates were exonerated in 2019, and that brings the number of exonerees to 166.
The case of Rodney Reed continues to illustrate the danger. A court in Texas halted his execution in a case that has attracted huge public attention in the US. Mr. Reed has been on death row for 21 years since being convicted of a 1996 murder – he was due to die on November 20 by lethal injection before it was stopped.
Mr. Reed has always maintained his innocence, and there is evidence to back this up.
According to the BBC, Stacey Stites was due to be at work early in the morning of April 23, 1996, when she never turned up to the grocery store in Bastrop, near Austin. Within a few hours, the truck she drove was found abandoned. By that afternoon her body was discovered. She had been strangled with her own belt.
Investigators found semen in the woman’s vagina belonging to Rodney Reed. Mr. Reed, however, claimed that he was having a secret relationship with the victim.
The problem: “The murder weapon was never tested for DNA. None of Reed’s fingerprints were found on the truck Stacey was driving. The case against him was mainly built around his semen. He said he’d had consensual sex with Stacey the day before she was killed.”
Expert witnesses testified at the trial that this could not be true, that they did not believe the sperm could have survived in her body so long and, instead, they argued that she must have been raped shortly before being murdered.
As the BBC points out, “This was enough for an all-white jury to convict Reed.”
Among the new evidence, “The evidence focuses partly on the claims by forensic witnesses in the original trial that sperm could not survive for more than a day after sex. One of those medical experts, Dr Roberto Bayardo, has put out a sworn statement explaining that he is now aware that sperm can stay intact for days after death.”
Moreover, he says, “there is no evidence that Stacey Stites and Rodney Reed had anything other than consensual sex.”
Should this be enough evidence to execute someone?
The Post editorial goes on to note that those executed are “not necessarily the worst of the worst but the least capable of defending themselves.”
Instead, the center found “at least 19 of the 22 prisoners who were executed this year had one or more of the following impairments: significant evidence of mental illness; evidence of brain injury, developmental brain damage, or an IQ in the intellectually disabled range; or chronic serious childhood trauma, neglect, and/or abuse.”
Public opinion is evolving here. The Post notes, “Sixty percent of Americans said in a 2019 Gallup poll that life without the possibility of parole is a better penalty for murder than death. That was the first time Gallup reported a majority holding that position. The Trump Justice Department, however, failed to get the memo, pushing suddenly and unexpectedly last year to execute federal inmates for the first time in 16 years.”
The Post concludes: “The death penalty is expensive, unfairly implemented and unworthy of a justice system that strives for equal application of the law. Yet even if it could be applied fairly, state-sponsored killing would be unworthy of a nation founded on the principle of individual dignity.”
The Rodney Reed case alone suggests that even one execution might be too many. The system is too flawed. It is too easy to execute an innocent person.
—David M. Greenwald reporting