As 2010 winds down, it is a good time to take stock of where we are on the always controversial issue of capital punishment. The Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a victims’ rights organization based in Sacramento, California, provides these key facts for the end of the year.
Number of executions stable: There have been 46 executions as of December 16, with one more possible. Forty-six is exactly the average of the previous four years (53, 42, 37, and 52 for 2006 to 2009, respectively).
Public support steady: Polls by the major polling organizations consistently show steady public support for the death penalty. Frank Newport of Gallup wrote in a report on November 8, 2010, “About half (49%) of Americans in this year's update say the death penalty is not imposed often enough and 26% say it is imposed ‘about the right amount,’ while 18% say it is imposed too often. These attitudes are little changed since 2002.”
Support is broadly based throughout the country. A Quinnipiac poll in Connecticut showed that 78% said the death penalty should be applied to some murders, depending on the circumstances of the case, which is the current law in all states with the death penalty. Another 7% favored the death penalty for all murders. Only 14% opposed the death penalty in all cases.
The only polling data purporting to show a decline in public support come from a partisan poll commissioned by a virulently anti-death-penalty organization, the Death Penalty Information Center.
Death sentences per murder stabilizing: As has been widely reported, the number of death sentences is down substantially from the peak in the mid-1990s. About half of this drop is attributable simply to the decline in murders. The percentage of murderers sentenced to death has also declined somewhat, but not as sharply as the raw numbers of death sentences. This ratio appears to have stabilized in the last several years, however. Death sentences per thousand murders the year before now stands at 7.3, about the same as four years earlier.
Lethal injection controversies being resolved: Following the Supreme Court decision on the lethal injection case of Baze v. Rees, states have begun resuming executions, although the residual legal challenges have taken different lengths of time in different states. Ohio and Washington have switched to a single-drug protocol that eliminates the primary basis for the challenges. Oklahoma has successfully used an alternate drug that eliminates the supply shortage problem.
Clearly aggravated cases: The facts of the cases of murderers executed this year demonstrate that the penalty is indeed being imposed on persons who have committed murders well above the average in cruelty and callousness and on those who kill or attempt to kill more than once.
Cal Coburn Brown was executed by the State of Washington. He raped, tortured, and murdered Holly Washa in 1991, tormenting her over a period of days in a Sea-Tac hotel room.
Jeffrey Landrigan was executed by the State of Arizona. Landrigan committed murder in 1982 and was sentenced to life in prison. Within prison, he stabbed another inmate 14 times. He then broke out of prison, fled to Arizona, and murdered Charles Dyer.
Holly Wood was executed by the State of Alabama. Angry at his former girlfriend, Ruby Gosha, he sneaked into her bedroom as she slept and shot her in the head with a 12-gauge shotgun. He bragged to his cousin, “I shot that bitch in the head, and blowed her brains out and all she did was wiggle.” He had previously attempted murder twice, once against Ms. Gosha and once against another former girlfriend.
Teresa Lewis was executed by the State of Virginia. This exceptionally callous “black widow” hired two men to murder her husband for his money and her stepson for his serviceman’s life insurance. She paid the killers in sex as well as money, prostituting her 16-year-old daughter in the scheme. Her bogus mental claims were thoroughly examined and refuted by the federal court of appeals.
Political developments and potential for reform: The excessive length of time that courts take to resolve the appeals in these cases and the attendant expense remain the largest problems. However, the outcome of the 2010 election raises the possibility of significant reform, with Republicans taking control of the U.S. House of Representatives and numerous state legislative bodies. Most appeals deal with issues unrelated to guilt in cases with no genuine issue of identity of the perpetrator. Simply limiting such issues to one appeal and reserving repeated reviews for guilt-related issues could greatly reduce delay and expense. Such reform has been politically out of the question, but now is a serious possibility.