|Yellow Mama: Alabama's disused electric chair|
When Nebraska abolished the death penalty in May, was that change inspired by the state's unique circumstances, or is it a harbinger of the tide turning in other conservative states?
The decision prompted a flurry of speculation that other states will follow suit and death penalty opponents will continue to gain ground.
In a Time magazine cover story heralding the end of the era of capital punishment, author David Von Drehle wrote that "... prosecutors, judges and jurors are concluding that the modern death penalty is a failed experiment."
The Washington Post described Nebraska's vote as 1 victory in a much larger war - "part of a little-covered and slow-moving strategy to abolish the death penalty nationwide."
In 2014, the number of executions hit a 20-year low, and only 72 new death sentences were imposed across the country, according to the DPIC.
Nebraska's move is a significant step in a nationwide shift away from capital punishment, as polls show waning public support, said Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
"What happened in Nebraska is, in many respects, a microcosm of what's going on in the United States," Dunham said. "There has been, for a long time, a solid core of people who have been opposed to the death penalty on moral grounds and a variety of other grounds, like innocence and race discrimination."
'I don't see it leaving the South soon'
Nebraska's political climate is fundamentally different from that of Alabama, which incarcerates the most death row inmates per capita and, with 198 inmates, the fourth-most in the nation by sheer numbers.
In Nebraska, 11 inmates were on death row in May. The state had executed just 3 people since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, and the last was carried out nearly 2 decades ago.
Alabama, meanwhile, has executed 51 people since 1983 and carried out its most recent execution in July 2013. Executions were on hold for months in several states as officials awaited a decision from the U.S. Supreme Court in a case out of Oklahoma.
On Monday, the court ruled that the lethal injection drug combination used to kill the condemned is not cruel and unusual punishment. Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange appeared ready to resume executions after months of delays.
Alabama's death penalty statute covers a broader range of homicides than other states' laws, and prosecutors seek it more aggressively. Alabama also is one of just a few states that allow a judge to override a jury's sentencing recommendation. That power usually serves to override a life sentence and impose death.
Kathryn Morgan, an associate professor at UAB, is researching the application of the death penalty in Alabama and across the country. Alabama's criminal justice relies enough on the death penalty that Morgan doesn't see the state's stance changing.
"It's a Southern subculture of violence that will not allow us to end the practice anytime soon," she said.
"If you look at the history of the South, it has been fraught with violence. I don't see it leaving Alabama soon, and I don't see it leaving the South soon."
In Alabama, Morgan says, the application of the death penalty raises the issue of discrimination based on race and class. Black offenders have been executed disproportionately since it was reinstated in 1976, and many of the inmates currently on death row couldn't afford qualified counsel.
"When the Supreme Court abolished it in the '70s, it was an opportunity for states to establish guidelines so it would not be applied in a discriminatory manner, but nothing has changed," Morgan said. "We still have the same kind of discriminatory application of the death penalty. It's about race. It's about money. As long as those things matter, we're going to have a problem with implementing the death penalty."
Shifting public opinion nationwide
In the most recent Pew Research studies, about 60 % of Americans said they supported the death penalty, down from 80 % in the 1990s.
Exonerations, like that of Anthony Ray Hinton in Alabama this year, have played a huge role in influencing public opinion, Dunham said.
Since the start of 2014, 11 death row inmates in eight states, including Texas, Florida and Mississippi, have been exonerated, according to the DPIC's records. Those exonerations have changed the nature of the death penalty discussion, as they raise issues of prosecutorial misconduct, errors in testimony and the use of investigative techniques and analysis later deemed junk science.
"Both innocence and [prosecutorial] misconduct are significant because the ultimate concern for many people is that they don't want to execute somebody who's innocent," Dunham said. "There are a lot of things that have happened recently that suggest that that is an inevitability when you have the death penalty."
"For many years, the death penalty was being looked at dogmatically rather than pragmatically." - Robert Dunham
Conservatives have begun discussing the "unacceptable probability" of executing innocent people, which goes against their traditional values, Dunham said.
Another practical issue to take into account is the economics of capital punishment.
Before the recession, states were effectively handed a blank check to pursue the death penalty. As money grew tighter and budgets were crunched, politicians have reevaluated policies through an economic lens. The death penalty, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per case to pursue and implement, is no exception.
"For conservatives, the nature of the discussion has changed," he said. "For many years, the death penalty was being looked at dogmatically rather than pragmatically."
Alabama lawmakers are still strongly in support of the death penalty, a stance most say is a reflection of the voters who elected them.
State Sen. Hank Sanders and state Rep. Merika Coleman-Evans have each introduced bills implementing a moratorium, but their proposed legislation has garnered little support.
In June, Miriam Shehane, who founded Victims of Crime and Leniency after three men raped and murdered her daughter in 1976, told AL.com that the death penalty offers the only final closure for relatives of murder victims.
Morgan, the UAB researcher, said she doesn't think diminishing support for the death penalty demonstrated in national polls has spread to Alabama yet.
"I think we're moving slowly in that direction, and some states are slower than others," she said. "Religious fundamentalism, conservatism, prejudice is still alive and well. Many criminologists argue that, because of the continued presence of those things, the death penalty will continue to be supported overall."
Which state is next?
The signs that a state might abolish the death penalty arise years before it happens. Prosecutors seek the death penalty less frequently. It is imposed less, and fewer executions are carried out.
In the states that have ended capital punishment, "the death penalty had begun to die through disuse before it was abolished by law," Dunham said.
Nebraska, the 19th state to abolish the death penalty, was the first predominantly Republican state to do so since North Dakota in 1973. Other states, like New Hampshire and Montana, have come close.
"Nebraska was the breakthrough, the state in which there was vocal and visible bipartisan support for abolition," Dunham said.
Politically, it's hardly a surprise that Alabama isn't among the states experts expect to abolish the death penalty anytime soon.
Based on recent trends, the most likely candidates are Kentucky, where three people have been executed since 1976, and Kansas, which hasn't had an execution since 1965.
Dunham says we're likely to see renewed and reinvigorated bipartisan efforts to end the death penalty across the country. Ultimately, the issue will probably be settled by the U.S. Supreme Court.
In the meantime, Nebraska's decision gives both opponents and supporters of the death penalty an idea of what could come next.
"It is not an indication that the tide is turning," Dunham said. "I think it's an indication that the tide may already have turned. You are seeing conservatives expressing their opposition to the death penalty more openly. You're seeing conservatives talking to each other about the issue, when, in years past, there was an unspoken assumption that political conservatives automatically supported the death penalty."
Source: al.com, July 2, 2015
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