The Death of the Death Penalty?

Like most people, I usually don’t bother with newspaper editorials, but this one took me. Like the cult of gun ownership in America, the death penalty seems to be sacred amongst a vocal minority who still believe in this “eye for an eye” punishment. Despite so many arguments against capital punishment–dubious deterrence value, exorbitant expense, irreversibility–it has persisted. The high (low?) point of the death penalty since its reinstatement was 1998, when 98 people were executed.

Things have changed for the better. While the steep increase in executions in the 80s and 90s was alarming, the steep decrease of the past 15 years has been surprising. Last year 39 people were executed, fewer than half as many as the peak in ’98. While this is still very troubling, many believe it is a matter of time before the Supreme Court puts an end to capital punishment. Proponents of the death penalty are in a squeeze. The high court may again deem execution “cruel and unusual” because the lethal injection drugs are hard to come by and sometimes manufactured in a (legislated!) shroud of secrecy. And it could easily be struck down on the grounds of due process and equal protection because the death sentence is so disproportionately dished out to black people who murder white people. And DNA evidence has shown how often the criminal justice system is wrong when it comes to murder convictions.

Trends like this give me a lot of hope because not long ago I thought that the death penalty, like anti-gay laws, was going to resist the winds of change. But changes in public attitudes and laws regarding gay rights have come quicker than I would have guessed, and I hope the same is true for the death penalty.

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