Although public opinion polls continue to show support for the death penalty, imposition of the death penalty is down by more than 50% over 10 years. In the late 1990s, around 280-300 people were being sentenced to death a year. In the last 5 years, it’s been around 125 to 150 a year. No one has noticed this. But it is significant that a country this large with as many homicides as we have is sentencing so few people to death each year. A lot of prosecutors are no longer seeking it or are seeking it very infrequently. And juries are more reluctant to impose it. Both prosecutors and juries have the alternative of life imprisonment without parole, which many states did not have until fairly recently. [...]
14 states do not have the death penalty. Of the 36 that have it, 12 have 10 or less people on death row (7 have 5 or less – that includes New Hampshire which has none – it has not sentenced anyone to death since 1976). Six of those 36 states have had only 1 execution in the last 32 years and New Hampshire and Kansas have not had any. The death penalty is at best serving only a symbolic value in these states. South Dakota has had one execution in 66 years (it has another one scheduled). A punishment that is carried out only once in 66 years is not serving much of a purpose. But, as New Jersey found, the costs are enormous.
Earlier this month my home state of Georgia — where 106 (pdf) prisoners sit on death row — became the first to resume executions since the Supreme Court ruled that lethal injection could be constitutional in Baze v. Rees (pdf).
In another case that could bring notoriety to Georgia, Troy Anthony Davis sits on death row despite the recantations of seven of the nine witnesses who testified against him, despite the fact that no murder weapon was ever found and no physical evidence linked him to the crime, and despite the fact that he has maintained his innocence throughout.
Atlanta’s Creative Loafing updates his case:
Legally, a witness’s original testimony carries far more weight than any revelation that might come later. Even if someone were to go to the authorities and say that he, and not the convicted murderer, actually pulled the trigger, it’s difficult to get the court to consider new testimony. [...]
There is one more hope, though. In Georgia, the Board of Pardons and Parole has the authority to commute Davis’ sentence. And the board has indicated a willingness to do so. According to an order issued in July: “The members of the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles will not allow an execution to proceed in this State unless and until its members are convinced that there is no doubt as to the guilt of the accused.”
The board already has heard from five of the trial witnesses and, according to Davis’ sister, is interested in hearing from more.
Ewart is optimistic about the Board of Pardons and Parole, which cannot commute a death sentence until an execution date has been set. That likely will happen in October.