Richard Dieter is the executive director of the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center. He discussed the American trend towards abolition as the governor of Maryland is expected to sign a new legislation repealing capital punishment into law this month.
See also Flurry of abolition bills in the US
What are the factors that encourage states to abolish the death penalty?
The risk of executing the innocent is the most prominent reason mentioned by those who vote to abolish the death penalty. This is particularly true in states like Maryland and Illinois, where egregious cases of mistake are easily recalled. Also, the states that have recently repealed the death penalty are all states that were not using capital punishment regularly. Illinois had many people on death row and carried out 12 executions, but all of that occurred over a decade ago. Since the death penalty was not being used, it made little sense to continue spending millions of dollars just to raise false expectations that it would become a regular practice. Some legislators morally opposed the death penalty; others believed it had been applied unfairly in their state. In all of the repeal states, it took a combination of factors to achieve abolition.
Which arguments are decision makers receptive to?
Decision makers want to be sure there is a realistic alternative punishment to the death penalty in place. In all the recent repeal states, that meant having a sentence of life without parole. It helped that the alternative was actually cheaper than the death penalty. Some legislators were moved by the risk of executing the innocent, others by the unfairness of the application of the death penalty, and still others by the fact that it was rarely used. Legislators wanted evidence that the death penalty was not a significant deterrent to murder. They also wanted to see that at least some victims’ families opposed the death penalty for the murder of their loved one.
Why some states are receptive to these arguments whereas they provoke the reversed effect to other states?
The same arguments seem to be the effective ones in all states. However, the pre-disposition of legislators, based primarily on the voters who selected them, will often indicate whether those arguments will lead to repeal. If a legislator comes from a conservative community, has always supported the death penalty, and believes it should be applied more often, then arguments about its cost, unfairness, or lack of deterrence have little effect. Everyone is concerned about executing an innocent person. However, some believe this can be almost completely prevented, while others believe it is an ongoing risk. Every argument has another side to it, so it often comes down to what the particular legislator chooses to believe. In some states, change will not occur until there is significant change in the legislature and governorship through elections.
How do you see the future of the abolition in your country?
The U.S. is in the process of ending the death penalty, but it is a state-by-state process. Only 9 states out of 50 carried out an execution last year. Death sentences have dropped by 75% since the 1990s, and executions have been cut by more than half. The number of abolition states has grown by 50% in just the past six years. The public is deeply ambivalent about the practice of capital punishment. Once the number of repeal states reaches a majority, and assuming that death sentences and executions continue to decline, the U.S. Supreme Court may consider the question of whether the death penalty has become a cruel and unusual punishment under our constitution. If that occurs, the death penalty will be wiped out in the few states that retain and occasionally use it.
Interviewed by Justine Payoux