As support for capital punishment in the United States erodes, one viewpoint not often heard in debates on the issue is that of the people who do the work that leads to executions: officials of the criminal justice system.
A Washington, D.C., organization called The Constitution Project is moving to fill that gap, with a group called Public Safety Officials on the Death Penalty (PSODP), which it describes as “an independent group of current and former law enforcement, prosecutors and corrections officials strongly concerned about the fairness and efficacy of the death penalty in America.”
The panel has launched a website to explain its background and views.
There were 2,959 people on death rows around the U.S. last year, down from a high of 3,593 in 2000, say the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
The number of executions dropped to 28 during the year from a high of 98 in 1999. Only six states among the 31 that authorize capital punishment actually put anyone to death: Texas, Oklahoma, Virginia, Florida, Missouri, and Georgia.
A solid majority of Americans, 61 percent, still backs the death penalty in some murder cases; but that is down from 80 percent support in 1994, at the height of modern-day crime totals in the U.S.
Seven states have abolished capital punishment since the beginning of the 21st century, although voters in one of them — Nebraska — will consider reinstating it this November.
The immediate future of executions in several states is in question because of state authorities’ inability to obtain drugs suitable for lethal injections.
In this uncertain atmosphere, the new panel of public safety officials is offering its expertise to policymakers in states that are considering whether to continue executions. The group has three co-chairs: former Virginia Attorney General Mark Earley, former Massachusetts corrections commissioner Kathleen Dennehy, and former Southern Pines, N.C., Police Chief Gerald Galloway, who formerly led the North Carolina Chiefs of Police Association.
The group says it stands ready to provide information. It does not take a formal stand on whether capital punishment should be abolished, but it is clear that the co-chairs believe that the current system is not operating fairly and efficiently.
Former Police Chief Galloway declares that the capital punishment system is “dysfunctional,” noting that it often takes many years to put an accused murder to death, and that more than 150 people have been removed from death rows in various states after being exonerated or having their convictions overturned for legal reasons.
Noting that some convicted murders spend decades on death row amid seemingly endless legal appeals, Galloway told The Crime Report, “The system is unfair. It is too expensive. Some innocent people end up on death row, and victims’ families wait for justice that never occurs.”
‘Too High a Price’
Dennehy said her biggest concern was “the possibility of executing an innocent person — that is too high a price to pay.”
She also cited allegations of “botched executions” in Oklahoma and elsewhere, saying that corrections employees who must carry out the sometimes tricky lethal injection process can suffer psychological harm. (Oklahoma inmate Clayton Lockett died in 2014 more than an hour after he was placed on an execution gurney after an employee had difficulty inserting a needle.)
Earley, who served as Virginia’s attorney general from 1998 until mid-2001, said last year he had changed his views and now opposes capital punishment.
“If you believe that the government always ‘gets it right,’ never makes serious mistakes, and is never tainted with corruption, then you can be comfortable supporting the death penalty,” he wrote in the University of Richmond Law Review. “I no longer have such faith in the government and, therefore, cannot and do not support the death penalty.”
Some members of the new group favor capital punishment, but the entire panel agreed that, “each of us is ready to explore alternative ways to achieve a more just and effective public safety system.”
Unless the system can be fixed to insure that innocent people are not sent to death row and that the appeals of those who are convicted in capital cases are handled promptly, those found guilty of murder should serve a maximum penalty of life in prison without the possibility of parole, Galloway and Dennehy said.
Members of the new group will offer their expertise to officials in states considering whether to retain the death penalty, Galloway said. “We represent a powerful perspective” he said, referring to their years of experience working in the justice system.
One major state that faces a close public vote on the issue is California, where there may be competing propositions on the November ballot: one to speed executions and another to abolish capital punishment.
Opposition to capital punishment continues to rise in California, a new Field Poll shows, with state voters now equally divided between scrapping the death penalty altogether and speeding up the path to executing inmates on the nation’s largest death row.
A Field Poll last month found that 47 percent of voters surveyed favor replacing the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole, up from 40 percent in 2014. The poll shows that 48 percent of registered voters would support proposals to accelerate the state slow system of resolving death penalty appeals to pick up the pace of executions.
As of last year, California had by far the nation’s largest death row, housing 743, inmates, and last conducted an execution in 2006. Jeanne Woodford, former California corrections director, is a member of The Constitution Project’s new panel.
The Constitution Project maintains a separate committee of experts beyond those on the law enforcement side of the criminal justice system, who in 2014 issued a lengthy report, recommending ways of “preventing and correcting errors” in the capital punishment system. Earley also serves on that panel.
Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists, and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.