The death penalty is still very much alive in the United States. Despite the appeals court ruling overturning more than 100 death sentences in three Western states, and former Illinois Gov. George Ryan’s commutation of 167 death sentences, 3,500 people remain on death row.
One prominent execution took place yesterday: Paul Hill, 49 was put to death in Florida, for murdering a doctor who performed abortions, and his bodyguard, in 1994.
The Christian Science Monitor notes that the death row total has fallen only slightly in recent years and exceeds the figure in most nations. Last year, 71 prisoners were executed, and 53 this year.
The Monitor says the situation reflects Americans’ ambivalence about a penalty that most endorse but are more hesitant to inflict. Nearly three fourth of Americans favor the death penalty for a person convicted of murder, says a recent Gallup survey. The number drops to 53 percent when life without parole is an alternative.
Far fewer criminals are getting death sentences today than did a decade ago. It’s no longer permissible to execute the mentally retarded, and courts may be moving against executing juveniles.
“Within the public, there is still an acceptance of the death penalty as a just penalty,” says Eric Sterling of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation in Silver Spring, Md. The public only supports it, he adds, “if it can be imposed properly.” More and more, “the public has a lot of worries that in many instances it’s not being imposed properly.”
In Delaware, an unusually large number of death-penalty cases have gone to trial as a backlog of capital cases has reached the courtroom, delaying other criminal and civil trials, the Wilmington News Journal reports.
The pace is expected to continue into 2004, prompting one court official to predict a fiscal crisis for the courts. Superior Court Administrator Art Bernardino said he expects to run out of money to pay jurors in the coming weeks. State budget officials disagree and say the court system should have enough money.
The increase in death-penalty trials resulted from a seven-month delay in capital cases after the June 2002 Supreme Court decision that juries, not judges, should should determine whether a defendant is eligible for the death penalty.