WASHINGTON — With a new moratorium on the death penalty in Oregon and a drop in the number of death sentences and executions, capital punishment is slowly losing ground in the United States.
Oregon governor John Fitzhaber announced on Tuesday that the northwestern state will halt executions at least until the end of his mandate, joining the camp of US states that have effectively shunned the death penalty.
“I refuse to be a part of this compromised and inequitable system any longer; and I will not allow further executions while I am governor,” said Fitzhaber, who said he had come to the conclusion they were “morally wrong.”
The governor suspended the last execution scheduled for this year, halting the count for the number of people put to death in the United States in 2011 at 43.
That total is slightly below that seen last year, and less than half the number of people executed each year in the 1990s. The number of death sentences also has fallen since then by nearly a third.
Only a dozen of the 50 US states conducted executions last year, most of them in the south.
“Slowly, state by state, there is this erosion of support for the death penalty,” Richard Dieter, the director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told AFP.
In all, 16 states have abolished the death penalty or did not re-adopt it after it was restored by the US Supreme Court in 1976. They could be joined as early as next year not only by Oregon, but also by Maryland, Connecticut and California.
“It’s going to take a while — the death penalty won’t end in three years; in 10 years, there’s a possibility,” said Dieter, stressing that it ultimately will be up to the Supreme Court to decide.
Public enthusiasm for capital punishment shows some signs of waning, falling to the lowest level in 39 years, but Robert Blecker, a law professor at New York University, notes that it “remains surprisingly constant and robust.”
Blecker pointed to a recent Gallup poll that found that 61 percent of Americans approve of the death penalty for convicted murderers.
“Americans as a whole favor the death penalty when it is imposed only when there’s absolute certainty,” said David Schaefer, a professor at Holy Cross College in Massachusetts and an advocate of capital punishment.
With the execution of Troy Davis in September, whose case became a cause celebre after doubts were raised about his guilt, “we reached a new plateau in the US critical examination of the death penalty,” said Steven Hall, of the abolitionist StandDown organization in Texas.
“If you have an ideal vision, the death penalty is reserved for the worst of the worst,” he said. But Hall added that the possibility that innocent people are put to death is “an issue that has been a great concern to people.”
New voices also are being raised against the death penalty — prosecutors, former guards and prison officials have protested individual executions on various grounds, denouncing lethal injection as cruel or calling for DNA tests.
Since 1973, 138 inmates on death row have been subsequently found innocent and released, 17 of them on the basis of DNA evidence, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, which says doubts have been raised in three out of four executions.
“If we occasionally, very rarely, execute an innocent person, if the death penalty is more deterrent than life without parole, on balance we will have saved innocent lives,” said Blecker, who supports the use of the death penalty for the most monstrous crimes.
On the other hand, the cost of an execution, estimated at $3 million when all the legal work involved is considered, is three times greater than locking up someone in prison for life, according to a recent study.
“The wheel of justice rolls rather quickly” in certain cases like that of Timothy McVeigh, who was executed in 2001 for the Oklahoma City massacre after only six years on death row, said Schaefer.
But a 10 to 20 year process is more common. Schaefer argues for speeding up that process by “eliminating procedural road blocks that do not depend on the guilt or innocence.”