In 2013, the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and our many allies and supporters in the death penalty abolition movement celebrated triumphs and learned from our setbacks. This list of important stories from 2013 emphasizes the successes but provides critical reminders of the challenges we still need to overcome.
Maryland Repeals Death Penalty – Governor Martin O’Malley signed legislation in May abolishing the death penalty in Maryland, raising to 18 the number of states without the punishment. In a statement O’Malley said Maryland has eliminated “a policy that is proven not to work. Evidence shows that the death penalty is not a deterrent, it cannot be administered without racial bias, and it costs three times as much as life in prison without parole. What’s more, there is no way to reverse a mistake if an innocent person is put to death.” Five men remain on Maryland's death row, and O'Malley so far has not commuted their sentences.
Death Penalty Support Drops – In October, Gallup reported poll findings that support for the death penalty was the lowest it had been in 40 years, with 60% of respondents favoring the death penalty for people convicted of murder. Opposition to the death penalty stood at 35%, and 40% of respondents believed the death penalty was applied unfairly. In national news coverage reporting on the poll results, Diann Rust-Tierney, NCADP’s Executive Director, said "It's not a matter of if, but when [the death penalty will be abolished]."
New Report: 2% of Counties Responsible for Most Executions –The Death Penalty Information Center issued a report in October that found only 2% of U.S. counties are responsible for the majority of cases leading to executions since 1976. Moreover, only 2% of counties are responsible for the majority of recent death sentences. According to the report entitled, The 2% Death Penalty: How a Minority of Counties Produce Most Death Cases at Enormous Costs to All, “The disparate and highly clustered use of the death penalty raises serious questions of unequal and arbitrary application of the law. It also forces the jurisdictions that have resisted the death penalty for decades to pay for a costly legal process that is often marred with injustice.”
Reginald Griffin Exonerated – Three decades after he was sentenced to death for stabbing James Bausley while they were incarcerated in Missouri, Reginald Griffin was exonerated in October for the murder. "To not have this over my head is more than what words can describe," Griffin told The Associated Press. "Now that it's over, I'm going to try to put my life back together, to go on with my life." The legitimacy of his conviction came into question when at least one witness recanted testimony implicating him and his attorneys discovered that prosecutors had withheld a report that guards had confiscated a sharpened screwdriver from another inmate as he attempted to leave the crime scene. Griffin is the 143rd person in the U.S. to be exonerated from death row since 1973, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Lethal Injection Drug Shortages Confound States – Throughout the year, state administrators of capital punishment have gotten increasingly frustrated and desperate in their actions to gain access to drugs for executions. Deborah W. Denno, a professor at Fordham Law School, told the New York Times in November, “These states are just scrambling for drugs, and they’re changing their protocols rapidly and carelessly.” For example, Missouri abandoned plans this year to use propofol – an anesthetic commonly used in hospital surgical procedures – when warned that the European Union might halt all shipments of the drug to the United States, thus limiting its availability for thousands of hospital patients. Other state prison systems have resorted to trying new untested drugs, buying drugs from new sources including from compounding pharmacies which are not regulated by the FDA, keeping the identities of their drug suppliers secret or swapping drugs among states.
Timely Justice Act Passes in Florida – Despite an outcry of opposition from Florida residents that included over 15,000 calls, emails and letters, in June Governor Rick Scott signed the Timely Justice Act. The intent of the law is to speed up the pace of executions by requiring the governor to sign a death warrant within 30 days of a prisoner’s appeals becoming final. According to Mark Elliott, Executive Director of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, “it will certainly raise the risk of executing an innocent person, if not make it a certainty.” Given Florida’s track record that is something to be very concerned about. Since 1976, Florida has executed 82 prisoners and exonerated 24 death row inmates—the highest number of exonerees in any one state.
Texas Executes 500th Person - Kimberly McCarthy, a former occupational therapist, was executed in June for the murder of her neighbor, Dorothy Booth, a former professor, and became the 500th person executed in Texas since 1976. Texas leads the nation in executions, but in recent years the number of death sentences issued has fallen. By December, Texas had executed eight additional people bringing its total executions since 1976 to 508.
Virginia Electrocutes Robert Gleason –In January, Robert Gleason was executed by electrocution in Virginia for the murder of Harvey Watson, a 63-year-old fellow prisoner. Gleason was the first person since 2010 to choose the electric chair over lethal injection. According to the Daily Mail’s account of the execution, “a brine-soaked sea sponge - soaked to better conduct electricity throughout the body leading to a faster and less painful death - was strapped to his right calf before a second was to the top of his head. Without the sponge the electricity administered would disperse all over the body, causing the body to cook in a far more agonizing way.” Gleason’s former attorneys said he suffered from mental illness.
Delaware Senate Passes Repeal Bill – With a narrow but bipartisan vote in March, Delaware’s Senate approved legislation to repeal the death penalty in the state. While the legislation was later held up in the House Judiciary Committee, the bill remains open for consideration through the 2014 legislative session when advocates will continue to push for repeal in the House. Sen. Karen Peterson, chief sponsor of the bill, said after the vote, "I just believe that you don't teach people that killing is bad by killing them."
U.N. Human Rights Council Passes Resolution on Behalf of Children of Death Row Prisoners - in March, the Human Rights Council voted to convene a panel on the human rights of children with parents sentenced to death. Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights was in Geneva at the time and contributed to a document advocating for the Council’s resolution. The resolution states that the Human Rights Council “acknowledges the negative impact of a parent’s death sentence and his or her execution on his or her children, and urges States to provide those children with the protection and assistance they may require.”