"Dismantling the machinery of death," appears in the April 26th print edition of the Economist.
America is unusual among rich countries in that it still executes people. It does so because its politicians are highly responsive to voters, who mostly favour the death penalty. However, that majority is shrinking, from 80% in 1994 to 60% last year. Young Americans are less likely to support it than their elders. Non-whites, who will one day be a majority, are solidly opposed. Six states have abolished it since 2007, bringing the total to 18 out of 50. The number of executions each year has fallen from a peak of 98 in 1999 to 39 last year (see article).
Many people regret this. Some feel that death is the only fitting punishment for murderers: that it satisfies society’s need for retribution. Some find a religious justification, such as the line in Exodus that calls for: “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth”. Such appeals to emotion or faith are hard to answer, although the Bible also has passages about not casting the first stone, and many conservative evangelicals have ended up in the odd position of prizing life when it comes to abortion, but not when it comes to prisoners (the Catholic church is pro-life on both counts). However, in a secular democracy a law of such gravity must have some compelling rational justification, which the death penalty does not.
"The slow death of the death penalty," is the post on the Economist website.
Several factors have driven death sentences and executions down. The simplest may be that America’s homicide rate has declined sharply—from 10.2 per 100,000 people in 1980 to 4.7 in 2012. With that broader decline has come a fall in the most heinous murders; ie, the sort that earn the harshest sentences. As Bob McCulloch, prosecuting attorney for St Louis County, explains: “In Missouri, most [murders] are second-degree…bar-room brawls, or some guys shooting each other over a bad dope deal.” First-degree murders, he says, “rape and murder, killing a police officer—those are all way down.”
Another shift is that most juries can now impose sentences of life without the possibility of parole. In 1972, when the Supreme Court suspended the death penalty (it was reinstated four years later), only seven states allowed such sentences. Now every state bar Alaska gives juries the option of making sure that a murderer will never be released (perhaps to kill again) without actually killing him.
That makes them warier of the needle. Texas, for instance, introduced life-without-parole sentences in 2005. “When that happened,” says Craig Watkins, district attorney for Dallas County, the state’s second-most populous county, “you saw a decrease in prosecutors even bringing death-penalty cases...Now you have a choice. Before, you didn’t.” And indeed, Texas sentences fewer people to death now (nine in 2013) than in 2004 (23).