The death penalty in decline…

As life-without-parole sentences rise

Ronnie Kitchen
By: Marlene Martin

A snapshot of the year 2009 shows the death penalty on the decline -- even though executions themselves were up from the previous year.  2009 saw 52 people executed -- an uptick in executions from the previous year when 42 people were put to death. But 24 of these executions were carried out in Texas alone. Out of the 35 states that have the death penalty on the books, 24 did not execute a single person. And nine men were exonerated from death row in 2009, the second-highest number since the death penalty was reinstated.

Last year, the case of Cameron Todd Williamham, who was executed in Texas in 2004, made national headlines, exposing the fact that Texas almost certainly executed an innocent man, further eroding public confidence in the death penalty.

And the case of Troy Davis, who remains on death row in Georgia, won a difficult go-around with the Supreme Court, which ordered a lower court to hear his claims of innocence -- something he has been denied for years on end.

One of the most dramatic demonstrations of the growing skeptism toward use of the death penalty was the reluctance to impose it. In 2009, 106 people were sentenced to death; in 2008, that number was 111, and in 2007, it was 119. The numbers have steadily and consistently declined over the past eight years.

It is welcome news that the death penalty is moving closer and closer to the exit door. But as it does, we should take note of a disturbing  trend -- more and more life without the possibility of parole sentences (LWOP).

Today, over 40,000 prisoners serve this sentence, which assures that the only way you leave prison is in a body bag.  The number of prisoners serving LWOP continues to grow sharply each year. Back in 1992, only 12,453 prisoners served this harsh sentence.

While the death penalty is being imposed less and less, it is quietly being replaced with LWOP, with no one pointing out the harsh and cruel nature of this sentence. Quite the contrary: Groups like the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty openly advocate for LWOP sentences as a “just” alternative to the death penalty.

Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project, when prodded on the Colbert Report about his antideath penalty position, quickly advocated LWOP sentences as an alternative.

As the pages of this newsletter have consistently argued, “life without the possibility of parole sentences” are unduly harsh and not a just alternative to the death penalty.

But are LWOP sentences a necessary replacement of the death penalty that we just have to live with?  Is this the best activists can hope for right now -- get rid of the death penalty, and maybe later, sometime down the line, hope to tackle the issue of the harshness of LWOP sentences?

Adolfo Davis is now 33 and serving an LWOP sentence in Illinois. He was 14 years old when he was sent to prison, under an adult sentence. He wasn’t convicted of killing anyone, but of being a sort of “lookout person” in a gang-related crime. He admits to his involvement, but asks: Should he never be afforded another chance at life on the outside?

Mark Clements was recently released after serving 28 years under an LWOP sentence, also in Illinois; he was also incarcerated as a juvenile, at the age of 16.

“Natural life sentences shouldn’t t be advocated because this sentence just warehouses individuals without giving them a second opportunity,” Mark says. “This country is established on morals, but shows no  forgiveness, even within the walls of its churches.  It shows no forgiveness  toward individuals who allegedly committed crimes. LWOP is a slow death.”

Marvin Reeves served 21 years of an LWOP sentence and was released in July 2009, along with his co-defendant Ronnie Kitchen -- both victims of Chicago police torturer Lt. Jon Burge.

“We have to speak out against LWOP sentences,” Marvin told me, “Having this sentence is nothing but a long life of torture. When you have an LWOP sentence, you’re stuck in a maximum-security prison, and those conditions are harsher on inmates. You’re confined in a cell for 21 hours, and you have no access to programs or education or anything.”

He went on to say, “When you create poverty in a community, then you create a criminal.  If you leave a person no other opportunity -- if he isn’t educated, if there are no jobs -- that brings about crime in society, and that’s why jails are so full.

“If you put a man in a situation where he can’t feed himself and he can’t take care of his family, he’ll become a criminal in order to survive. Our government needs to fund programs that can help people. We need better education. That is what we should be promoting, not LWOP sentences.”