The number of death sentences passed in the United States during 2006 dropped to the lowest level since capital punishment was reinstated 30 years ago. The reduction seems to reflect misgivings about both the safety of capital convictions and the human rights issues arising from administering death row.
The latest annual report from the Death Penalty Information Centre (DPIC), shows that US judges and juries issued 114 death sentences in 2006, down from 128 the previous year. Courts in many states appear to be favouring sentences of life without parole as an alternative that is less drastic, equally satisfactory in terms of public safety and much less expensive to administer.
Ten states have in effect halted executions because of concerns that their favoured method, death by lethal injection, inflicts intolerable pain on the condemned prisoners. Illinois is in its seventh year of an open-ended moratorium on executions and New Jersey is considering abolishing its death penalty. Earlier this week, a special commission established by the New Jersey governor Jon Corzine, an outspoken death penalty opponent, concluded that justice would be better served by sentences of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
"There is no compelling evidence," the report said, "that the New Jersey death penalty rationally serves a legitimate penological intent. There is increasing evidence that the death penalty is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency. The penological interest in executing a small number of persons guilty of murder is not sufficiently compelling to justify the risk of making an irreversible mistake."
The death penalty exists in 38 of the 50 US states but is only regularly applied in a small handful of them, led by Texas, Virginia and Oklahoma. Those states which have put the death penalty on hold because of concerns about the inhumane aspects of lethal injection include California, Florida, Ohio, Arkansas, Delaware, South Dakota, Maryland and Missouri.
This report appeared in today’s Independent