Capital punishment continues to be practiced in the United States decades after it has been abolished in other Western developed countries. It continues to be practiced despite denunciation of the practice as a human rights violation by organizations like Amnesty International. It continues to be practiced in spite of the firm moral opposition of the Catholic Church.
It’s another instance of “American exceptionalism” and, along with gun violence galore, galloping economic inequality, and the flimsiest of social safety nets, one of the nastiest.
The good news is that today the death penalty itself might be dying. It’s not going to happen tomorrow, or easily, or in a final act of abolition. It will be more of a death by a thousand cuts, a withering away. Unless, of course, a future Supreme Court declares the death penalty unconstitutional as “cruel and unusual punishment.” It could happen, but if and when is anybody’s guess.
Meanwhile, the statistics on execution by year show that, in recent years, the death penalty has been carried out less and less frequently. Capital punishment was reinstated in 1976 and from 1977 to the late nineties it climbed to a peak of 98 executions by 1998. By 2009, executions had dropped by almost half to 52. The number has continued to drop. By 2015 it was down to 28. As of July of this year, 15 people have been put to death. The trend is clear.
Why is it happening? There is no single cause. Court decisions in several states, including Florida, have found either the methods or the rules for carrying out or imposing capital punishment to be unconstitutional. In some cases, such rulings have thrown out a number of death sentences. In others, they have tossed a wrench into the cogs of the machinery of death, slowing it down.
Most recently, the Delaware Supreme Court ruled the state’s rules for imposing the death penalty unconstitutional. This decision, The New York Times notes, “could mean an effective end to capital punishment in Delaware.” The paper quotes Eric M. Freedman, an expert on capital punishment at Hofstra University, as saying: “This probably means, as a practical matter, the end of the death penalty in Delaware.
The news on public opinion concerning the death penalty is not as good, although even here there are some silver linings in what long has been a very dark sky. Currently, according to Gallup, Americans favor the death penalty by a large margin, 61 percent for to 37 percent opposed. So where is the silver lining? The latest numbers show a significant shift from the mid nineteen nighties, when the figures were 80 percent in favor, 16 percent against.
Still, it is a sad commentary on the American mentality that support for the death penalty is still almost 2-1 after all the exonerations for false convictions and at a time when most of the people in the democratic countries of the world have concluded that capital punishment is a barbaric punishment more suitable to tyrannical regimes like Iran than a constitutional republic like the United States.
The writer/philosopher Albert Camus wrote that “bloodthirsty laws make for bloodthirsty customs.” The United States is proof of this axiom: we have by far the most murders in the First World and we are the only ones that still practice the death penalty.
The insistence on holding on to the death penalty is not an isolated case. Compared to other Western countries, the United States is an extremely punitive society. The penalties for almost every crime are more severe in the United States. This country has the largest prison population of any nation in the world, including China, which has five times as many people!
In this country, punishment is almost always the default way to deal with just about every social ill, from the possession of small quantities of illegal drugs for personal use to selling goods on the street without a license. In some cases, capital punishment for trivial offenses like these is meted out directly by police without benefit of trial.
One of the ugliest aspects of the practice of capital punishment and, of our excessively punitive system in general, is the racist bias that runs through it. For many reasons, lynching is extremely rare in this country today. One of those reasons, I would hypothesize, is that capital punishment partially serves a similar function: eye-for-an-eye revenge.
This hypothesis is supported by the demographics and geography of execution. Blacks are disproportionally put to death compared to whites convicted of similar crimes. And, executions are concentrated in the formerly slave-holding states of the old Confederacy, with Texas and Florida usually at the forefront.
One of the reasons that capital punishment and the punitive society persist is that a major bloc of Americans seems to have no historical memory, shame or guilt. Few Americans are even aware that most of the Southwest was stolen from Mexico through a war of aggression, and fewer still have any sense of guilt or shame about it. Ditto for the Gitmo naval base. Few people suffer any cognitive dissonance from the fact that the United States is “a shining city upon a hill” as well as a nation founded on genocide of the native population and mass enslavement of African Americans.
We are the good guys, no matter what. Never mind that we are the outlier when it comes to punishment and that among our peer nations we punish the poor by having the most miserly safety net. We judge ourselves and find we are the most benevolent and generous nation on earth. God Bless America.