Desireé Babbitt, 27. whose father was executed in 1999, traveled from New England to Austin, the nation’s capital of capital punishment, to speak out against future executions. The San Antonio Express-News says she joined other relatives of executed convicts at a conference that put on display the passion and tenacity, if not necessarily the effectiveness, of the movement to abolish the death penalty on the books in 38 states. The gathering assembled more than 300 activists and lawyers at what they said was a ripe moment in the decades-long battle over mercy and retribution. “We’re working in an atmosphere where I believe the death penalty is really on the decline,” said Diann Rust-Tierney of the conference’s sponsor, the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
This year, the U.S. Supreme Court extended its 2002 decision forbidding the execution of retarded convicts by ruling that capital punishment is also cruel, unusual and impermissible for juveniles. New York’s attempt to revive its 10-year-old death penalty stalled in the state Assembly, and the Texas Legislature added life without parole as an alternative to the death penalty. Strikingly, the number of death sentences around the country continued to drop. “I would agree with them they’ve had some significant victories,” said Dudley Sharp, a defender of the death penalty in Texas. “You’d be a fool not to observe that.” The decline in death sentences has several causes, he said. Primarily, court rulings have complicated the appeals process for prosecutors and simply reduced the number of defendants eligible for capital punishment. “The gains the anti-death penalty movement has made is not because of their efforts,” he said. “It’s because of judges.”