Death Penalties Decrease, Opinions Shift

Death sentences are at their lowest level in decades.

The Death Penalty Information Center, a group based in Washington, reported that the number of death sentences, which had remained at about 300 a year in the 1990s, began to drop steadily in 1999 and has declined almost 60 percent since then.

At the Justice Department, the Bureau of Statistics reported last week that there were 128 death sentences in 2005, down from 138 the year before. While the department study does not include an estimate for 2006, the Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes the death penalty and tracks cases closely, says the number for this year will be about 114.

Why the drop?

Defense lawyers, prosecutors, and groups that study the application of the death penalty all say there are several reasons for the trend. Among them are increased publicity about cases other than murder in which DNA testing resulted in freeing people who had wrongly been convicted of crimes, producing skepticism about the reliability of verdicts; recent Supreme Court decisions requiring that juries be told when life in prison without possibility of parole is an option, and improved legal representation for capital defendants, including a sharp increase in using specialists to develop arguments for mitigation.

Mitigation specialists assist defense lawyers by investigating and presenting evidence to persuade juries to spare the defendant’s life.

But, there's another factor. Public opinion.

A Gallup poll earlier this year showed that for the first time, Americans were almost evenly split when asked to choose which is a better penalty for murder, a death sentence or a life sentence without possibility of parole. Until recently, the public had overwhelmingly responded in favor of the death penalty.

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    and maybe, just maybe, public opinion moves (5.00 / 1) (#1)
    by scribe on Fri Dec 15, 2006 at 09:21:16 AM EST
    when they read true stories like this one, from a witness at the Angel Nieves Diaz execution this week with the lede:

    It seemed like Angel Nieves Diaz would never die.

    The reporter who wrote that line has witnessed over 50 Florida executions since 1984, including all 20 by lethal injection.  He continues:

    Two executioners injected him with three chemicals that were supposed to take a few minutes. But 10 minutes later, he was still alive, his eyes darting back at the 25 witnesses.

    Diaz shuddered several times, but continued moving and breathing for nearly half an hour, finally dying 34 minutes after the execution began.

    I've witnessed all 20 lethal injections in Florida. In most cases, the inmate is unconscious in three to five minutes and dies in 10 to 15 minutes.

    But Diaz, who was condemned for shooting the manager of a Miami topless club in 1979, needed a rare second dose of chemicals Wednesday before dying.

    Seconds after the chemicals began flowing, Diaz looked up, blinked several times and appeared to be mouthing words, perhaps a prayer, some suggested.

    A minute later, he began grimacing, later licking his lips and blowing. He appeared to move for 24 minutes after the first injection.

    One commenter, experienced in euthanizing animals, noted feeling failure when it takes longer than 30 seconds to put an animal down. But, hey, just because you wouldn't treat a dog that way, doesn't mean you can't treat a man, particularly a darker-skinned one, that way.

    Grotesque, but people need to know what their government does "in their name".  Though, I'm pretty sure, most people would rather not have their names attached to anything like this, and most of those who would want their names on it have political ambitions requiring them to be "tough on crime".

    Whatever "tough on crime" means....

    In reality, Diaz had it right in his last words, which the reporter described:

    After the curtains open, the warden asks if the inmate has a final statement. A microphone hanging from the ceiling picks up the condemned person's last words. In a faint voice, Diaz proclaimed his innocence in Spanish and criticized the way he was being put to death.

    "The death penalty is not only a form of vengeance, but also a cowardly act by humans," he said. "I'm sorry for what is happening to me and my family who have been put through this."

    As I noted yesterday in a comment elsewhere, Capital Defense Weekly reported:  "I should note there was a decent factual innocence claim."

    But, hey, Jebbie got to ignore 15,000 requests for this one man's clemency.  There's a lot of power in being able to ignore that many people! Especially when he might be innocent!  I hope he sleeps as well as his nitwit, drunken brother.

    As the sign at the prison read:

    "Execution in Progress, MERRY CHRISTMAS."

    and now, the autopsy reveals malpractice (none / 0) (#2)
    by scribe on Fri Dec 15, 2006 at 04:40:25 PM EST
    The autopsy of Mr. Diaz indicates that the needles carrying the lethal injection, which were supposed to go into his veins instead went straight through his veins and into the muscles of his arms.

    He had chemical burns  - from the execution chemicals - 11 inches long on one arm, and 12 inches long on the other.  One is constrained to wonder just how painful the proper administration of these chemicals truly is, if they leave foot-long burns after being administered for only a half-hour.

    About a decade ago, I worked on a medical malpractice case where the professional poked the needle through the vein and into the muscle.  Per se malpractice, given the character of the chemotherapy involved, was the rule.

    At least Jebbie had the political sense to suspend executions until his hand-picked panel can review the procedure....