Last night, Robert Campbell was scheduled to be put to death. The Texas inmate had asked for his execution to be stayed indefinitely after the botched execution in Oklahoma two weeks ago, a stay that the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals awarded. The court cited medical tests that show Campbell has intellectual disabilities, and said the defendant should have additional time to prove his ineligibility for the death penalty.
For now, the painful and protracted death of Clayton D. Lockett remains the last execution in our minds, which has left the debate over the death penalty to linger. However, recent worries and complaints about the death penalty shouldn't be seen as a new chapter in the United States' relationship with the death penalty; it's a continuation of a trend. Since 2007, six states have abolished the death penalty, out of 18 total. You have to go back to 1984, to find the next pair of bans. Go back another decade to 1973, and you can find one more. With six abolished death penalties in the past seven years, the United States' affinity for executions is thawing faster than ever.
Maryland repealed their death penalty only last year. The state's governor, Martin O'Malley, said after signing the bill, "With the legislation signed today, Maryland has effectively eliminated a policy that is proven not to work." When Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy signed his state's death penalty repeal in 2012, he said, "In the last 52 years, only two people have been put to death in Connecticut -- and both of them volunteered for it. Instead, the people of this state pay for appeal after appeal, and then watch time and again as defendants are marched in front of the cameras, giving them a platform of public attention they don't deserve." The previous year, Illinois abolished the death penalty. It had been under a moratorium since 2000, after a man was exonerated 48 hours before he was scheduled for execution. Eighteen people on death row have later been exonerated, including Michael Morton, who had been in Texas prison for nearly 25 years. Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn said, “I felt at this time, at this place, at this moment in history, the best step forward for the State of Illinois was to abolish the death penalty. We all know that our state has had serious problems with respect to the system of the death penalty for many years. … I’ve concluded after looking at all the information I’ve received that it’s impossible to create a perfect system – one that is free of all mistakes, free of all discrimination with respect to race, economic circumstance or geography.”
No other states have abolished the death penalty this year, but many have been reconsidering how to do it. Although the United States collectively landed on lethal injections as the most humane way of carrying out death sentences, after the electric chair, firing squads and hanging were retired and sentenced to wait out eternity as museum exhibits, it has become harder to obtain the necessary chemical cocktail. Many of the countries we buy the drugs from will no longer let us import them for executions.
Only 21 countries used the death penalty in 2012, according to Amnesty International. The United States had the fifth most executions, behind China, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
Virginia considered bringing back the electric chair. One Missouri state legislator wanted to offer firing squads as an alternative. “A firing squad would be quick and something we could do at a moment’s notice. My opinion is they would suffer less than with lethal injection.”
Americans seem to have also accelerated their downward approval of the death penalty — or at least its efficacy. Gallup has been asking respondents whether they find the death penalty to be an effective deterrent of murder since at least 1985. Twenty percent more Americans believed it wasn't an effective deterrent in 2004 than did in 1991.
The last Gallup poll, conducted in October 2013, showed that support for the death penalty had dipped to its lowest levels since 1972. However, that still meant that 60 percent of Americans favored the death penalty. In several of the 32 states that still use the death penalty, the support is the stickiest. The Washington Post spoke to Oklahoma resident Geneva Miller soon after Lockett's death. She said, “We’re just crazy about how everybody thinks Oklahoma is bad for supporting the death penalty. We just don’t understand how they could think otherwise — that it wouldn’t be right.” Another said, “I think he got what’s coming to him."
In Texas, where Campbell was scheduled to die on Tuesday, 876 people have been executed since 1964. The state accounts for nearly 40 percent of executions in the country, according to the New York Times. A Times reporter spoke to a resident of the city where all of Texas' executions take place. He said, “It’s kind of business as usual. That sounds cold, I know. But they’re not in prison for singing too loud at church.”
Seventy-four percent of Texans support the death penalty, according to a 2013 Texas Tribune poll.
In Missouri, Russell Bucklew's death is scheduled for May 21. He is suing the state to stay the execution, saying that his rare medical decision, cavernous hemangioma, could prolong his last moments, as the local alt-weekly Pitch reported. The Pitch also wrote about the intertwined nature of Oklahoma and Missouri's death penalty systems — a connection that could grow closer if Bucklew's death mirrors that of his executed predecessor, Lockett, as his attorneys and medical experts have said could occur.
Morley Swingle, the prosecutor who sent the convicted murderer and rapist to jail, told the Southeast Missourian, "If the execution is carried out on May 21, the world will be a bit safer place on May 22."
The number of states still carrying out the death penalty may be shrinking, and many Americans are questioning the morality — and the expense — of the system. In the places where the death penalty is "business as usual," the politics are far more complex and entrenched. The opinions of people and politicians in these states are the most interesting numbers if we want to predict the future of the death penalty in America, but the data available on these opinions are far more scarce.
The death penalty is unlikely to become an election issue anytime soon either — although a group hopes to get a proposition on the 2016 ballot in California concerning the death penalty. California ballot initiatives do have a reputation of giving issues serious amounts of national attention.