Death Penalty: Lordy Lordy, Look Who's Forty

(Published on Huffington Post)

Forty is a milestone in the lives of many. Reaching it, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, means that you have made it almost exactly to the halfway point of life. If you get to 40 as a healthy body, your life expectancy, on average, will be another 40.7 years in this country. From one perspective, it's depressing -- half your life is the rearview mirror. You are now heading over the hill. From another, a fit and able-bodied perspective, there's still a lot of road ahead.

The modern death penalty turned forty years old last month. It was born in 1976, after a bit of an unexpected pregnancy. Just a few years earlier, the Supreme Court had decided there wouldn't be any more such penalty. Their decision was made in Furman v. Georgia, where then Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart wrote, "These death sentences are cruel and unusual in the same way that being struck by lightning is cruel and unusual." With the stroke of five of the nine SCOTUS pens, the previous version of the death penalty was ruled unconstitutional and passed away.

Its reincarnation a few short years later was the result of a few states -- specifically Georgia, Florida and Texas -- successfully overhauling their old sentencing processes to work around the reason for the prior death penalty's demise. The Supreme Court confirmed it in Gregg v. Georgia. Capital punishment was reborn.

A couple of weeks ago, as if celebrating the death panalty's 40th birthday, Delaware ruled it to be unconstitutional in their state, highlighting what has been evident for a while now. Capital punishment has been in a state of rapid deterioration lately and is in very poor health. Delaware joined Nebraska, Connecticut, Maryland, New Mexico and others in abolishing the death penalty after deciding that it just wasn't a viable sentence anymore. 

Several other states -- including Pennsylvania, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Ohio, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Montana -- have essentially checked their death penalty into the retirement home through moratoriums, preventing anyone from actually being executed. Over a dozen others seem to be on the verge of doing the same, as executive or judicial orders have put executions on hold pending procedural reviews. That means that two-thirds of the death penalty states are admitting there are problems with the ultimate punishment, which puts into doubt whether the penalty will continue to live there.

As is true of anyone showing their old age, capital punishment has been steadily slowing down. The death penalty hit its prime in its early 20s. Between 1997 and 2000 there was an average of 266 people sentenced to die and 81 executions each year. 

By 2014, however, the number of condemned people who were executed was less than its age then. At 35 executions, it was the lowest number in 20 years. Last year, that number dropped yet again, this time to its lowest level in nearly a quarter of a century. With only 28 executions in 2015, the number had ironically dropped to almost exactly the same amount of deaths as were caused by lightning the previous year -- a total of 26, according to the National Weather Service. This year, it looks as if there will be less still, with an estimated 21 executions.

Further demonstrating its age, executions are being carried out in fewer states with each passing year. Last year, only six of the remaining 30 death penalty states carried out executions, the fewest in almost 30 years. Three states -- Texas, Missouri and Georgia -- accounted for 86 percent of those executions. Of the 14 executions that occurred in the first half of this year, eleven of them occured between Texas and Georgia.

As still further evidence, even prosecutors and juries appear to be losing faith in the creaky system. Only 49 people were sentenced to death last year. That's the lowest number sentenced to death in the last 40 years... since the year the modern death penalty was born.

The death penalty cannot live for much longer. With its ongoing problems and obvious signs of wear, it is barely hanging on. Now, it's just pathetic, a shell of what it once was. For those who believe it should still be here, it's sad. It is being abandoned like a childless man who lived life cruelly. No one will be at its funeral. For the anti-death penalty community, it's still sad, knowing that many have suffered in its wake. A true waste of life. Perhaps it's time for it to retire as a hermit, quietly into obscurity, before it further embarrasses itself.

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