A year for more executions

Sunday, January 3, 2010; A16

VIRGINIA WAS one of 11 states that put an inmate to death in 2009. The state executed three prisoners, including D.C.-area sniper John Allen Muhammad, contributing to the first spike in executions since 2005. Nationwide, 52 prisoners were put to death in 2009, up 41 percent from the 37 executed during 2008.

Part of the increase can be attributed to an artificial drop in the number of executions in 2008 when states enacted de facto moratoriums as the U.S. Supreme Court weighed the constitutionality of lethal injections.

Still, the continued reliance on this unnecessary and barbaric punishment is regrettable, especially because of the continued risk that innocent men and women could be put to death. Indeed, nine inmates who had spent years on death row were fully exonerated in 2009, thanks in large part to the increasing use and sophistication of DNA evidence.

Perhaps because of the nationwide drop in the murder rate or perhaps because of the risk of wrongful execution and the exorbitant costs associated with prosecuting capital cases, fewer death sentences were handed down this year, according to a report by the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit group that studies capital punishment. In 2009, 106 prisoners were sentenced to death, down from 111 such sentences in 2008 and 119 during 2007. In Virginia, which has averaged six death sentences per year and holds 16 prisoners on death row, only one prisoner was given a capital sentence in 2009. No prisoner was dealt this sentence in Maryland, which currently holds five inmates on death row.

While the number of death row inmates in the federal system increased to 58 -- three times the number that existed at the beginning of the Bush administration -- the size of the death row population in the states continued to drop and stood at 3,279. More than 1,400 such inmates are held in California, Florida and Texas.

New Mexico took the commendable step of abolishing capital punishment in the state. Sadly, Maryland lawmakers debated such a step but failed to garner the votes for passage. Instead, they passed legislation that authorizes the death penalty only in cases where DNA or videotaped evidence corroborates guilt. This toughening of the standards is welcome, but lawmakers should not abandon the quest to erase the death penalty from the state's books.

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