Last month, Colorado's legislature voted to repeal the death penalty. The governor is expected to sign the bill any day, which will make it the 22nd state to get rid of its death penalty. Combined with the three other states that have a moratorium in place, that brings the grand total to 25 states that have done away with executions.
We're at a tipping point. Half the country (and much more if you count by population instead of the number of states) has recognized the inherent flaws with the death penalty system. Many states have adjusted their laws to favor practices that actually work to deter and solve crime. The few remaining states still carrying out executions are extreme outliers — both in the country and in the Western world.
As the number of states carrying out executions dwindles (and the number of executions themselves also sinking), the country is getting a better picture of the abuses in this practice.
Only 22 executions were carried out last year, making 2019 the fifth year in a row with fewer than 30. So far in 2020, we've seen five.
Just seven states were responsible for 2019's executions, with the vast majority coming from only five: Texas, Tennessee, Alabama, Florida, and Georgia. Missouri and South Dakota executed one person each, while Texas alone was responsible for over 40 percent of all executions last year.
Almost every single one of those cases offered the general public an opportunity to pull back the curtain on the operations of the death penalty and see its many serious flaws.
In the same week Colorado voted to repeal its death penalty, Alabama went in the opposite direction.
After its football programs, Alabama is probably best known for its history of racial bias within its criminal justice system. Just recently, the true story of a black man wrongfully sentenced to die in Alabama has been sweeping the nation in the movie Just Mercy.
But lest viewers think that Alabama left the shocking practices portrayed in that movie in the 1990's, the state doubled down on its reputation and executed a black man who was sentenced to die by a non-unanimous jury after being represented by an ineffective attorney. No one questions the fact that he did not pull the trigger in the homicide for which he was convicted either, he was sentenced under a law that allows individuals to be held responsible for crimes where they were present.
The execution of Nathaniel Woods has blown up in the media and created outrage, even among Americans who are sympathetic to capital punishment. The outrage is justified, but the surprise many display at the deficiencies in the case illustrates just how far removed the average citizen is from this system that is no stranger to errors, inequity, and outright corruption.
Also within the past week, yet another wrongful conviction was discovered from Florida's death row. Paul Hildwin spent 29 years on death row — in the state that has exonerated the most people previously sentenced to die — before accepting a plea agreement to set him free this week. It's notable that his plea will prevent him from being added to the official death row exoneration list (of which there has been one discovered for every nine executions in this country.)
This shows how the one-for-every-nine statistic fails to fully encapsulate just how many innocent people end up on death row. Given the numbers we do know, there's no question our country kills innocent people.
In fact, during this same time period, Florida has been on the verge of executing another person with significant innocence claims — James Dailey. I've covered Daily's case extensively in other pieces, but as a refresher: He was convicted based almost entirely on the testimony of a prolific and crooked jailhouse informant. Another man has confessed to acting alone in the crime, and Dailey has been cleared as the source of DNA evidence in the case. But Florida may still kill him anyway.
And in Tennessee, which recently decided to join the ranks of high-usage death penalty states, another recent case has infuriated the masses. The Volunteer State elected to kill Nick Sutton in February. Sutton, who spent over 30 years on death row, gave every indication of being a man who experienced reformation. In fact, seven of the guards charged with overseeing him during his time on death row spoke out on his behalf, asking the governor for clemency in the case. Sutton was actually responsible for saving several lives during his time in prison. On top of that, multiple family members of his victims and five of the jurors who originally voted to sentence him to death all joined petitions to the governor asking for intervention in his execution. None of it mattered.
While it's enraging to watch these cases proceed, they are not in vain. The increased scrutiny on individual executions, given their dwindling numbers, has allowed more Americans to discover the problems we've been sounding the alarm on in the death penalty system for years.
While Colorado was the first state to repeal in 2020, it won't be the last this decade. And every time one of the few remaining practicing states kills another person, they shine an ever-brightening light on all the ills and injustices that plague this system.
Hannah Cox is the National Manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. Hannah was previously Director of Outreach for the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free-market think tank. Prior to that, she was Director of Development for the Tennessee Firearms Association and a policy advocate for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. To read more of her reports — Click Here Now.
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