DPIC Releases 2013 Report, Showing Marked Decline in Death Penalty Use

On December 19, the Death Penalty Information Center released its annual report on the latest developments in capital punishment, "The Death Penalty in 2013: Year End Report." In 2013, executions declined, fewer states imposed death sentences, and the size of death row decreased compared to the previous year. The number of states with the death penalty also dropped, and public support for capital punishment registered a 40-year low. There were 39 executions in the U.S., marking only the second time in 19 years that there were less than 40. Just two states, Texas (16) and Florida (7), were responsible for 59% of the executions. The number of death sentences (80) remained near record lows, and several major death penalty states, inclucing Virginia, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Louisiana, imposed no death sentences this year. Maryland became the sixth state in six years to abolish capital punishment. “Twenty years ago, use of the death penalty was increasing. Now it is declining by almost every measure,” said Richard Dieter, DPIC’s Executive Director and the author of the report. “The recurrent problems of the death penalty have made its application rare, isolated, and often delayed for decades. More states will likely reconsider the wisdom of retaining this expensive and ineffectual practice.”

RECENT LEGISLATION: Maryland Death Penalty Will Not Face Referendum

Maryland’s death penalty repeal legislation will take effect as scheduled on October 1, 2013 after its opponents were unsuccessful in securing the number of signatures required to put the issue on the November 2014 ballot. Efforts to put Maryland’s death penalty to a statewide vote were led by Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger and a group called On May 31, the group announced that it only collected about 15,000 signatures, falling short of the 18,579 signatures required in order to proceed. If the group had met the initial deadline, they would have had until June 30th to collect more than 37,000 signatures from registered voters in order to place the referendum on the November 2014 ballot. "To be reaffirmed by the public, and know that justice is served, is wonderful," said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg (D-Baltimore), who supported the repeal bill, "This is the most profound thing I will ever do." On May 2, Maryland became the sixth state in six years to abandon capital punishment when Governor Martin O'Malley signed the repeal bill into law.

Former Death Row Inmates Are Ambassadors of Change

A recent article in The Nation by David Love, the Director of Witness to Innocence, underscored the important role of people like Kirk Bloodsworth and Shujaa Graham (pictured), who were once on death row and now have been freed. These and many of the 140 other people who have been exonerated from death row have traveled the country, speaking to legislators, students, church groups, and the general public about the risks of executions. Bloodsworth's efforts in Maryland have received wide attention. Shujaa Graham, also a Maryland resident, was exonerated from death row in California after the state Supreme Court overturned his death sentence because the prosecutor had excluded African Americans from his jury. He was later acquitted in a re-trial. Both Bloodsworth and Graham recently attended the signing of the death-penalty repeal bill in Maryland.

Maryland's Legislature Repeals the Death Penalty

On March 15, the Maryland House of Delegates passed (82-56) a bill to abolish the death penalty for future crimes. The same bill passed the Maryland Senate on March 6. Governor Martin O’Malley has pledged to sign the bill, which will make Maryland the 18th state to abolish the death penalty, and the sixth to do so in the last six years. O'Malley said, “I’ve felt compelled to do everything I could to change our law, repeal the death penalty, so that we could focus on doing the things that actually work to reduce violent crime.” Maryland currently has five people on death row, but they will not be affected by the legislation.  Prior to 2007, no legislature had abolished the death penalty since the 1960s. The other 5 states to recently abolish the death penalty are New Jersey, New York, New Mexico, Illinois and Connecticut.

RECENT LEGISLATION: Maryland Senate Votes to Repeal Death Penalty

On March 6, the Maryland Senate passed SB 276 by a vote of 27-20. The bill replaces the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole for future offenses. The bill appears likely to pass the House of Delegates, and Governor Martin O’Malley has pledged to sign it. The bill would not affect the inmates currently on death row. If passed by the House and signed into law, Maryland would become the sixth state in six years, and the 18th overall to abandon capital punishment. Maryland has five people on death row and has carried out five executions since reinstating the death penalty in 1978. There have been no executions since 2005. Connecticut, Illinois, New Mexico, New York, and New Jersey are the other states that have ended the imposition of death sentences since 2007.

Maryland Takes Crucial Step Towards Death Penalty Repeal

On February 21, the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee of Maryland approved (6-5) a bill to replace the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole. In prior years, the effort to end capital punishment was often blocked in this committee. Senator Robert Zerkin was one legislator who changed his mind this year, "As heinous and awful as these individuals [on death row] are, I think it's time for our state not to be involved in the apparatus of executions," he said. The bill outlaws future death sentences and recommends that current death sentences be commuted by the governor to life without parole. There appear to be sufficient votes for repeal in the Senate and the House, and Governor Martin O’Malley has pledged to sign the bill. A final vote in the Senate is expected by Feb. 26. The bill garnered support from a coalition of murder victims’ families, communities of color, law enforcement officials, faith leaders, civil rights leaders, and other prominent individuals, including Kirk Bloodsworth--who was freed from the state’s death row--Vicki Schieber--a Maryland resident whose daughter was murdered in Philadelphia in 1998--Catholic Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, and Ben Jealous, President of the NAACP. The governor has pledged to use some of the money saved from not having the death penalty to support victims' services. If Maryland repeals the death penalty, it will become the sixth state to do so in the past six years. Other states considering repeal of the death penalty, include Montana, Colorado, Kentucky, Oregon, and Delaware.

The Changing Face of the Death Penalty in American Politics

A recent column in The Economist examined the growing number of governors and other political leaders in the U.S. who are challenging the death penalty. In Arkansas, Governor Mike Beebe (pictured) announced in January that he would sign a death penalty abolition bill if the legislature sent him one. In Maryland, Governor Martin O'Malley has led a push to repeal the death penalty. Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper said he is reconsidering his support for the death penalty as that state considers its repeal. New Hampshire's new governor, Maggie Hassan, indicated she would sign a repeal bill if it reaches her, after two previous governors vetoed such actions. In Oregon, Governor John Kitzhaber suspended executions for the remainder of his term and asked legislators to review the issue. The Republican governors of Ohio and Kansas also have reservations about the death penalty. Governor John Kasich of Ohio has granted four commutations in capital cases, citing the need for fair trials, and Governor Sam Brownback of Kansas said capital punishment should be reserved for figures like Osama bin Laden. The author in The Economist contrasted these developments with Arkansas' former governor, Bill Clinton, who flew home from campaigning for president in 1992 to oversee an execution.  The article stated, "[T]he death-penalty debate has changed in ways that go beyond day-to-day politics. It is less loud and more sceptical, giving thoughtful governors room to question a policy that causes them anguish—because they think it arbitrary, ineffective and costly, and because they impose it."

First Death Row Inmate Exonerated Through DNA Returns, Calling for Death Penalty Repeal

A recent article in the New York Times highlighted the story of Kirk Bloodsworth, who was the first death row inmate in the country to be exonerated by DNA testing. Bloodsworth, a former Marine, was sentenced to death in 1984 for the rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl outside of Baltimore, Maryland. After DNA evidence led to his exoneration and release in 1993, Bloodsworth began working against capital punishment and for justice reform. “If it could happen to me, it could happen to anybody,” he told the reporter. He is now the advocacy director for Witness to Innocence, an organization of exonerated death row inmates who support each other and work to repeal capital punishment. Bloodsworth has returned to Maryland as it considers a bill to end the death penalty. Advocates for repeal cite the declining use of the death penalty as evidence that capital punishment is losing support across the country (see NYT charts using DPIC data). Death sentences have dropped to the lowest levels since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976. Five states since 2007 have done away with the death penalty.