Death, Interrupted

Governor John Kitzhaber of Oregon put a moratorium on executions in his state last week, and he didn't mince words about why. At a November 22 press conference, he called the death penalty broken, unfair, and a "perversion of justice" and said he will urge legislators to consider reforms during their 2013 session. His move halts the execution of Gary Haugen, a man convicted of two murders and scheduled to die December 6. “I am convinced we can find a better solution that keeps society safe, supports the victims of crime and their families, and reflects Oregon values,” Kitzhaber said. “I refuse to be a part of this compromised and inequitable system any longer.”

The governor is hardly alone. His decision is the latest step in the accelerating movement to abolish capital punishment in the U.S. through state-by-state moratoriums and voter initiatives. As several states across the country take concrete action to ban the death penalty, activists and political leaders are unabashedly framing their cause in the language of morality.

Oregon’s news comes two months after the execution of Troy Davis, the Georgia inmate whose case revived public resistance to killing as punishment for killing. Hundreds of thousands of people around the world rallied, held vigils, and petitioned for a re-examination of Davis’s case. Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, Amnesty International, and the Oregon Capital Resource Center were all part of the anti-death-penalty coalition that petitioned Kitzhaber this month to make his substantive policy shift.

Voter initiatives to repeal the death penalty are also expected next year in California and Maryland. And while Connecticut’s Supreme Court voted last week to uphold the death penalty, a bill to repeal it will be introduced at the start of the next legislative session in February. Troy Davis’s sister, Kim Davis, appeared in Stamford last week alongside NAACP President Ben Jealous and other civil-rights leaders to call for an end to capital punishment. “There are people sitting on death row that don’t deserve to die,” she said.

It has been a slow journey for states to abolish lethal punishment. Michigan became the first democratic government in the world to ban the death penalty in 1846, ten years after statehood, and it has never reinstated it. But to date, Michigan is among only 16 states and the District of Columbia that ban execution. Since 2007, three states—New Jersey, New Mexico, and Illinois—have done away with capital punishment. Before 2007, no state had done so since the 1960s.

The momentum, then, is changing. As Oregon, Connecticut, and Maryland move toward abolition, a new Gallup poll conducted shortly after Troy Davis’s death revealed that support for the death penalty is at its lowest in 39 years. Forty-one percent of respondents said they feel the penalty is imposed unfairly, and 64 percent contend that it is not a deterrent to other murders. Support for the death penalty has dropped 19 percent in 17 years.

Meanwhile, only 12 states followed through on 46 executions last year. There were 112 death sentences handed out. This is a dramatic decline from the 1990s, when about 300 people a year received capital sentences, and, in 1999, 98 people were executed. Overall, the actual number of executions has dropped by nearly a third since the 1990s, which may reflect increasing public ambivalence. Publicity around exonerated inmates is also raising uncertainty even among those who otherwise support capital punishment. In the Gallup poll, a full 59 percent said that they believe at least one innocent person has been executed in the last five years. Since 1973, 138 inmates slated for death have been found innocent and released, 17 from DNA evidence.

But while executions and newly instated death sentences are starting to decrease, the number of inmates on death row has increased; people can spend decades on death row with sentences that are delayed by the appeals process and stays, or otherwise not carried out. This backlog can result in a purgatory of sorts for inmates fighting their sentences. In 1994, Sister Helen Prejean published Dead Man Walking, an eyewitness account of her work as a spiritual adviser to Louisiana inmates on death row. At the time, 2,890 people were on death row nationwide. It was the last year the number was less than 3,000. Ten years later, when Prejean published The Death of Innocents, the number of death-row inmates had increased to 3,315. While the Gallup poll shows shifting trends, 61 percent of respondents said they support execution as a sentence for murder. Forty percent said that the death penalty is not used often enough.

Given this, those who actively resist the death penalty—both on the ground, as with challengers of the Troy Davis debacle, and on high, as with Governor Kitzhaber—are brave. Of particular note is Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, an abolition group made up of people uniquely affected by the crime of death-row prisoners founded shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty. Their work currently targets California, Texas, and North Carolina. But as Oregon’s story reveals, they can’t do it alone. Grassroots coalitions targeting political leaders in the state-by-state abolition campaign are effective.

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