Executions up, death sentences down

Two reports in early January 2010 highlighted the ongoing tumult in the national debate over the death penalty. A story in The New York Times looked at a prominent legal group’s decision to end its support for capital punishment. And the annual survey from the Death Penalty Information Center presented a mixed picture.


2010’s Death Penalty Information Center survey showed 52 executions nationwide in 2009 — a 41 percent spike from the 37 executions in 2008.

But Richard Dieter, executive director of the DPIC, said much of the increase was due to the end of an eight-month informal moratorium on executions nationally. That moratorium ended in mid-2008.

“The rise in 2009 was expected as states were backlogged with cases,” Dieter told The Birmingham News. “But the country continues to move away from the death penalty.”

The DPIC report noted that there were fewer death sentences handed down nationwide in 2009 than in any year since 1976, and it was the seventh straight year of declines.

Meanwhile, a Jan. 4, 2010, story in The New York Times highlighted another important development in the ongoing death penalty debate: The American Law Institute, an organization of lawyers that was key to creating “the intellectual framework for the modern capital justice system,” has abandoned its support for that system.

The ALI announced its change of policy in a statement in October 2009, with further coverage in the fall 2009 edition of The ALI Reporter. The ALI voted overwhelmingly to drop its 50-year-long effort “in light of the current intractable institutional and structural obstacles to ensuring a minimally adequate system for administering capital punishment.”

As The Times‘ legal affairs correspondent, Adam Liptak, wrote: “That last sentence contains some pretty dense lawyer talk, but it can be untangled. What the institute was saying is that the capital justice system in the United States is irretrievably broken.”

Liptak unpacks the meaning of the ALI move and the history of the death penalty’s legal travails. He also notes that the number of death sentences has continued to drop and that New Mexico last year repealed its death penalty.

But do these developments, and the loss of such an influential and prestigious intellectual support, mean capital punishment will be going away anytime soon? Maybe not.


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