The Year in Death

Saturday, December 31, 2005

IN 2005, 60 PEOPLE were executed in the United States -- a tiny increase from the 59 people put to death in 2004. This figure represents at least a temporary leveling off of the precipitous decline of capital punishment in the United States since 1999, when the states executed 98 people. Yet beneath the surface, signs -- albeit inconsistent signs -- of the death penalty's decline continue.

According to data from the Death Penalty Information Center, new death sentences fell dramatically again this year -- to an estimated 96 from 125 in 2004 and 276 in 1999. The overall population of death rows around the country likewise continued to fall. And this year had a remarkable development: a state effectively abolishing its death penalty. After the courts struck down New York's capital punishment law, the state legislature consciously declined to pass a new one. Even the death-happy state of Texas is making progress. This year, it executed 19 people -- well below its average of the past decade and fewer than half of the 40 people it put to death in 2000. What's more, the state legislature passed a statute allowing juries to impose life in prison without parole as an alternative to capital punishment. Though it is second to Texas in executions since 1976, Virginia -- thanks to a courageous commutation by outgoing Gov. Mark R. Warner -- did not execute anyone this year.

There was some movement against the trend as well. The intense regional concentration of the death penalty, which had become particularly pronounced in recent years, seemed to fade a bit this year. More states carried out executions than in 2004, and more of them were outside of the South -- the death penalty's heartland. Moreover, while state legislatures have been reining in capital punishment, Congress has been pushing the other direction. The federal death penalty keeps expanding, and Congress this year has been flirting with dangerous legislation to erode federal review of state capital convictions. That said, the overall tendency is unmistakable: At least for now, with crime and murder rates low and the threat of wrongful convictions on people's minds, the death penalty does not have the same attraction that it once had.

Finally ending the death penalty in America, however, will not happen quickly. Despite any number of DNA exonerations and some serious questions raised about whether innocent people have been executed, public support for capital punishment remains unnervingly strong, if not quite as strong as it was a few years ago. What is possible now is to begin translating the apparently lessened enthusiasm for executions into laws that permit it less often. In only a few states does capital punishment operate as a day-to-day feature of the criminal justice system. In some states that permit it, it is never -- or almost never -- used at all. The example of New York shows that when policymakers are forced to confront the utility of a largely theoretical death penalty, they may turn their backs on it or at least restrict it. It is time for opponents of the death penalty to begin systematically offering other states that opportunity as well.

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