SCOTUS ruling on lethal injection, the decline of the death penalty continues unabated
On Wednesday the Supreme Court issued its decision in the case of Baze vs Rees, upholding the constitutionality of Kentucky’s lethal injection protocols. Texas has already used the Court’s ruling as a green light to set an execution date – the first of dozens that have been on hold awaiting the ruling – and other states like Florida have announced that they’ll resume their schedule of executions as well.
Some are saying that the ruling in Baze is the reversal of a trend. After all, the last seven months have represented our country’s longest period without a single execution in decades. But that analysis ignores a much more fundamental shift away from capital punishment over the last several years, one which is not likely to change course anytime soon.
Death sentences – which were free to continue unabated during the lethal injection moratorium – are at an all-time low. Juries are consistently choosing life without parole over the death penalty. Meanwhile, across the nation lawmakers are asking whether the penalty makes sense anymore. California, Tennessee and Maryland are conducting statewide studies to examine the death penalty system. New York’s death penalty has been permanently suspended and there’s little appetite to bring it back. New Jersey fully abolished the death penalty last year, while Montana, Nebraska and New Mexico have come close to doing the same.
This trend is hardly surprising. The risk of executing an innocent person increasingly disturbs the American public. Just last week another wrongfully convicted man walked off death row after a court found that evidence pointing to his innocence was hidden from his attorneys for over a decade. We also know more today than ever before about the ways the death penalty harms victims’ family members and even hampers law enforcement efforts.
Police Chief James Abbott, a death penalty supporter who served on the New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission, recently wrote, “I no longer believe that you can fix the death penalty. Six months of study opened my eyes to its shocking reality. I learned that the death penalty throws millions of dollars down the drain -- money that I could be putting directly to work fighting crime every day -- while dragging victims' families through a long and torturous process that only exacerbates their pain.” In fact, law enforcement officials in Maryland, California, and New York have come forward to say that the death penalty is simply not an effective law enforcement tool.
The Baze ruling will undoubtedly bring about a slew of executions in the coming year. But this procedural blip has no bearing on the larger trends regarding capital punishment – all of which point to a sea change that is moving us beyond the death penalty altogether.