Pulling Back From The Brink
Why are death sentences and executions dropping?
"The last words I heard from my husband were on the phone--he was crying and screaming to give them the money, that they were going to kill him," says Flax. She wants Martini dead because she believes he has no excuses--he's a white man who has confessed, who had good lawyers who pursued all appeals, and her state doesn't take capital punishment lightly.
But the prevailing consensus in New Jersey is that the death penalty there will be abolished. Former Morris County prosecutor Michael Murphy says that eradicating the law will save prosecutors money; a recent study estimated that the state had spent $253.3 million trying and defending death penalty cases since the state reinstated capital punishment in 1982. He also argues that it will be good for the law as a whole--that in their efforts to avoid imposing death, courts have established procedural precedents that make it more difficult for prosecutors to get convictions in other criminal cases.
Family ties. Murphy has a unique insight into the penal system: His late stepfather, Richard Hughes, grew up the son of the warden at the prison where Martini now resides and as governor presided over the state's last execution in 1963. "It was," says Murphy, "the most troubling day of his service to New Jersey."
Executions are also declining worldwide as more nations move to bar capital punishment, Amnesty International reported last week. The United States, however, remains among the top four countries in which most executions occur. Ninety-four percent of the 2,148 executions carried out last year in 22 countries were staged in just four nations: China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United States, the organization said--the vast majority in China.
And no one is predicting the end of the death penalty in the United States. The current lethal injection controversy is one that even Dieter says can be legally resolved with a new protocol. In fact, North Carolina on April 21 administered a lethal injection to a prisoner whose brain activity was monitored to ensure the anesthesia worked before the deadly dose was administered.
Yet even with continued strong support for the death penalty--37 states have capital punishment laws--confidence in its fairness seems to have been irreversibly shaken, and that has altered the nature of the national debate. More than a half-dozen legislatures during the past year have considered moratoriums similar to the one passed by New Jersey, and at least 16 others have introduced bills over the past two years that would abolish executions. In Illinois, which now has freed 18 death row prisoners, a commission in 2002 recommended dozens of reforms. While the Legislature continues its work on the issue, the moratorium remains in place and has become an issue in this year's gubernatorial race. (In the U.S. Senate, Republicans have been pushing a bill that would limit prisoners' ability to appeal their sentences or convictions--an effort that a top Senate Judiciary Committee adviser last week characterized as "dead.")
Kent Scheidegger of the pro-law-enforcement Criminal Justice Legal Foundation predicts that there will continue to be a chipping away at capital punishment laws, similar to decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court to bar executions of juveniles and the mentally retarded. Bottom line, most Americans still believe in the ultimate penalty for those convicted of the most heinous crimes, but the public largely wants it done right and with deliberation--though polls show many accept that mistakes may occur. "Most people aren't anxious to kill people," says Post. "They just want society to be protected."
And that most likely means that death penalty cases will continue their tortuous paths through the legal system while legislatures tweak state laws and judges, prosecutors, and juries opt more frequently for sentences of life without parole when asked to decide who should live and who should die.
With Jennifer Jack