Abolition advancing

By: Marlene Martin

The winning of a moratorium on executions in Illinois seven years ago was a significant moment in the fight for abolition.

The beginning of this year marks another significant moment. The controversy swirling around lethal injection and whether it is a “humane” way to put people to death—or whether it is, in fact, torture—has led 11 states to put executions on hold as the whole process is reevaluated.

The controversy has thrown open the door to questioning the death penalty more generally. It has been the catalyst for a remarkable number of bills, both for moratoriums and abolition, to be put forward.

In just the past three months, Maryland, Nebraska, New Mexico and Montana came close to repealing the death penalty.

In Maryland, where the newly elected governor publicly advocated abolition in speeches and op-ed columns, legislation to abolish the death penalty failed to get out of a senate committee by a single vote.

In Nebraska, state Sen. Ernie Chambers has introduced legislation to repeal the death penalty every year for more than 30 years. This was the first time in 20 years that his proposal reached the floor of the legislature for a debate. It failed to advance by one vote. In an expression of the change in attitude around the death penalty, former Nebraska Sen. Loren Schmidt said, “I don’t see the vehement support of the death penalty on the floor today [that] we saw in my career.”

In New Mexico, an abolition bill passed the house but died in the senate by one vote. And in Montana, an abolition bill passed the senate, but died in the house, again by a single vote. Other states, notably New Jersey, are still considering either moratorium or abolition legislation.

While many of these bills didn’t succeed, the trend is significant. Together, these proposals have advanced further in a short period of time than at any other point since reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976.

Because the death penalty is being discredited on a number of fronts, politicians who once might have been quiet about their opposition to the death penalty now feel they can speak up publicly, and not take much heat for it. Martin O’Malley in Maryland, Jon Corzine in New Jersey and Timothy Kaine in Virginia are all examples.

As David Elliot of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty wrote, “In recent years and election cycles, something is profoundly different about the death penalty. Death penalty abolition is not the kiss of death for elected officials.”

This climate has been a decade in the making. Activists, journalists and lawyers helped to shine the spotlight on the more than 120 people released from death row after they were proven innocent.

The human side of this tragedy has been told in meeting rooms, books and legislative hearings across the country. What these stories reveal over and over again is that the death penalty is not reserved for the worst of the worst, but instead for the poor, and disproportionately for minorities.

Further striking evidence of the trend towards abolition is the fact that executions last year reached a 10-year low. The number of death sentences handed out by judges and juries also dropped to the lowest level in decades. And according to a Gallup poll in May of last year, 48 percent of those polled preferred life without the possibility of parole to the death penalty when given the choice, the highest level in two decades.

Abolition is advancing. Even if repeal and moratorium bills don’t pass this time around, they reflect the change in mood, and it is in our favor.

That doesn’t mean there will not be attempts to reverse the trend. In Texas, lawmakers are attempting to expand the death penalty for situations where the victim of crime wasn’t killed, and there are efforts in Virginia to expand the death penalty. But currently, in none of the 12 states without the death penalty are there real attempts to bring it back. And New Jersey may, in the not-too-distant future, become the 13th state without the death penalty.

Abolitionists would be mistaken to think we have advanced this far only because of the lethal injection controversy. A slow tide of change has been building over the past decade.

Without that backdrop, the recent debate over lethal injection could have been safely pushed to the side and left to states to figure out acceptable methods of administering their poisons.

We are paving the way. Abolitionists should recognize the progress we’ve made and keep up the pressure. We’re in the ring now, and we don’t intend to give up. Abolition is on the horizon!