The Struggle Ahead

Record Number Of Executions, But Opposition Grows

By: Alice Kim

In 1999, the United States carried out 98 executions, the highest number since 1976 when the death penalty was reinstated. Texas led the way. With the mandate of its governor, George W. Bush, it killed 35 inmates -- far more than any other state.

But as states across the country engaged in this killing spree, the number of people freed from death row also grew. Last year, a total of eight people were freed and exonerated, the second highest number since 1973.

Anthony Porter's release from Illinois' death row at the beginning of the year captured national attention. In 1998, Porter came within 48 hours of execution, but was saved when activists drew attention to his low IQ and exposed the state's willingness to kill a mentally retarded man. The courts issued a stay of execution, which bought Northwestern University Professor David Protess and his journalism class the time they needed to uncover the truth: Anthony Porter was an innocent man.

Porter's release energized a growing movement for a moratorium on executions in Illinois. And calls for changes in the death penalty have not been limited to Illinois. Last May, Nebraska's legislature became the first state to vote for a moratorium on executions. Although the governor vetoed the measure, the legislature also unanimously passed a bill funding an extensive study of the fairness of the death penalty.

Also this past year, the state of Montana banned the execution of minors. A series of botched executions in Florida -- particularly the bloody electrocution of Allen "Tiny" Davis -- forced the U.S. Supreme Court to review the constitutionality of Florida's electric chair. And governors in five different states commuted death sentences last year -- in comparison to the yearly average of one.

These small steps are gains for our movement to abolish the death penalty.

But we have our work cut out for us in 2000. The current U.S. death row population stands at 3,625 inmates. A total of 17 executions were scheduled for January 2000, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Numerous politicians -- from President Bill Clinton on down -- want to speed up the U.S. killing machine. And all of the candidates running for president support the death penalty.

We need to build on the growing momentum of our movement with the aim of achieving a new century free of the death penalty.