Wednesday, December 28, 2005

2005: A year of extraordinary change

For several years now, we've seen evidence that the death penalty is, simply put, going to wither away on the vine. It very well may be that the death penalty will not go away in dramatic fashion, one day, one month, one year, but rather will simply be used less and less frequently until it is no more -- maybe a historical relic that is kept on the books on some states, but is rarely, if ever, applied.

And when the history of the death penalty is written, 2005 will be seen as a year in which this withering process picked up steam. We base this on a number of statistics and developments (hat tip to Death Penalty Information Center for pointing these out in their year-end report.)


  • The number of death sentences handed down in 2005 is estimated to be 96 -- down 60 percent since the late 1990s and the fewest number of sentences in one year since executions were allowed to resume in 1976.

  • New York refused to reinstate the death penalty and New Jersey took an important step toward, in effect, abolishing it.

  • Texas became the 37th out of 38 death penalty states to adopt the sentencing option of life without parole.

  • The U.S. Supreme Court abolished the juvenile death penalty, in effect commuting the sentences of 71 people to life without parole or, in some cases, very lengthy prison terms of at least 35 years.

  • The majority of states with the death penalty did not carry out a single execution.

  • The New Mexico House of Representatives passed a bill to abolish the death penalty, although it died in the Senate. Massachusetts resoundingly rejected the governor's call to reinstate the death penalty.

  • A very conservative newspaper in Alabama, the Birmingham news, announced that “after decades of supporting the death penalty, the editorial board no longer can do so” based on practical and ethical reasons.

  • In Texas, the Houston Chronicle published a two-part investigative series strongly suggesting that Texas executed an innocent man named Ruben Cantu in 1993, under the watch of then-Gov. Ann Richards.

What's on tap for 2006? Who knows -- but we are on the right side of history.

And thanks to the wonders of the Internet, all of this is being archived. It's weird and a little bit humbling to understand that the very things we work on day to day -- who knows, maybe even excerpts from this blog -- will one day be housed in a museum for people to inspect and reflect upon.

Happy New Year, to one and all.

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