The Los Angeles Times reports"California's death row grows as death sentences decline nationwide," written by Carol Williams and Jack Leonard.
Los Angeles County sent more people to death row this year than Texas, Florida or any other state in the nation, condemning 13 convicted murderers -- the highest number in a decade, according to a Times review of justice statistics.
The increase comes as a national report projects that the number of death sentences issued across the country this year will reach its lowest level since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976.
Los Angeles County helped California buck that trend, boosting the state's death sentences from 20 last year to 29 so far this year, more than a quarter of the nationwide total of 106, according to a report released Friday by the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center. The center attributed the national decline to deepening concerns about the costs of capital punishment and the possibility of wrongful convictions.
California's increase occurred despite legal challenges that have left the state's lethal injection chamber idle for the last four years. Any resumption of executions is still at least a year off, experts said. The 2009 capital sentences have helped push the state's condemned population to 697, the nation's largest by far.
"It really goes against all of the trends we've seen across the country, where death sentences are becoming less and less common and are imposed more selectively," said Natasha Minsker, death penalty policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, which opposes capital punishment.
California's capital punishment system has drawn widespread criticism as the most cost-inefficient in the country, having executed only 13 people in more than 30 years.
David Von Drehle writes, "Dwindling Death Penalty: Victim of the Recession?" for Time.
The death penalty used to be a big deal, important enough to figure prominently in the 1988 presidential debates. Four years later, in 1992, White House aspirant Bill Clinton, then governor of Arkansas, rushed home from the campaign trail to preside over an execution — because that's how politicians proved their mettle in those days.
This year's annual report of the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) shows how dramatically the issue has faded in recent years. Fewer death sentences were imposed in 2009 in the U.S. than in any year since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976. In the 1980s and '90s, states consistently sent more than 300 prisoners per year to death row. The total this year, according to DPIC, will be 106. This continues a steady trend going back most of the decade, and it extends even to Texas, the leading death-penalty state, where juries reliably sent 30 or more convicted killers per year to death row. That number fell to single digits this year: nine. (See why Texas may be changing its mind about the death penalty.)
Many factors play a part in the fading importance of capital punishment. The drop in the number of death sentences reflects a drop in the murder rate. Many states have adopted life-without-parole terms as alternative sentencing, and both prosecutors and juries have embraced the option. Also, DPIC executive director Richard Dieter theorizes that in tough economic times, states are reluctant to take on the high costs of capital cases — the special sentencing hearings, the mandatory reviews and the nearly inevitable years of appeals. The DPIC report cites the example of California, where death sentences were up this year but none of the state's 690 death-row inmates were executed. The cash-strapped state is spending $137 million per year, according to one estimate, on its stymied death-penalty system and is making plans to build a special facility to house its enormous death-row population, at a cost of some $400 million.
And so it goes with the once volatile issue: urgently important to fewer and fewer people, yet less and less compelling to the country at large, the death penalty keeps sputtering along, dwindling as the years go by.
"Why is use of the death penalty going down?" is the title of the Christian Science Monitor report by Mark Guarino.
But if use of the death penalty is declining overall, why is that?
One reason: Some state prosecutors are growing more hesitant to seek a death sentence in cases that might later be upended because of DNA evidence. Since DNA entered the courtroom in 1989, 248 criminal convictions have been overturned, 17 of which involved inmates on death row, according to the Innocence Project of Florida.
“What DNA has provided [to the debate] is a recognition that the public is very concerned that the system is accurate,” says Lance Lindsey, executive director of Death Penalty Focus, an anti-death penalty advocacy group in San Francisco. “DNA symbolizes that there’s a desire by the public that we get these sentences right.”
The latest DNA-related case to make national headlines came Thursday, when DNA evidence cleared James Bain, a Florida man, of rape charges. He had been sent to prison for life in 1974. His 35 years behind bars was the most time served by anyone who has been exonerated by DNA in the US.
Some states have struggled with unwanted media attention because of DNA findings. But beyond that, the states have found cases involving DNA to be costly.
Here is one DNA-related cost that some states handle: Some states have passed laws that grant money to former inmates who were found innocent. In Florida, the payment is $50,000 for each year served. That means Bain is set to receive $1.75 million.
Seth Miller, executive director of the Innocence Project of Florida, which worked to secure Bain’s release, says these cases need to be viewed “as educational experiences for folks who are prosecuting crimes.” It might change how they consider, for example, jailhouse informants and eyewitness testimony. He adds, “We have to use these opportunities to learn why wrongful convictions happen and how to prevent them in the future.”
The Sunday New York Times Week in Review section carried, "Prime Number."
106: The number of death sentences projected to be handed down by judges and juries in 2009, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. That number is the lowest since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976. Death sentences reached a high of 328 in 1994. Over the last decade, the number has fallen by 63 percent. The drop was most striking in Texas, which averaged 34 death sentences a year in the 1990s and had 9 this year.