Which State Will Be Next to Drop the Death Penalty?
This week, Nebraska became the 19th U.S. state to abolish the death penalty, and the first since Maryland in 2013.
Fourteen states, including Nebraska, have introduced bills this year to ban capital punishment, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit group that gathers public data about death penalty legislation and that favors banning the sentence. Four states voted no: South Dakota, Montana, Washington, and Wyoming. That leaves bills in nine states that are still at least technically active.
Based on legislative progress, Delaware may be Nebraska’s clearest potential successor. But Robert Dunham, DPIC’s executive director, says there’s more to consider: The states that preceded Nebraska in recent years all trended away from the death penalty before making abolition official.
Maryland hadn’t executed anyone since 2005 when it abolished the death penalty in 2013. When Connecticut did away with the penalty in 2012, it also hadn’t executed anyone since 2005—and it had executed only that one person, serial killer Michael Bruce Ross, since 1976. Illinois acted in 2011, 12 years after it had last put someone to death. And when New Jersey eliminated capital punishment in 2007, it hadn’t executed anyone since 1963. As for Nebraska itself, it had executed only three people since 1976, most recently in 1997.
Compare these with Texas, which executed Derrick Charles for a triple homicide on May 12 and has put 525 people to death since 1976.
Following this logic, Dunham says, “we’re likely to see reinvigorated efforts to abolish the death penalty in states such as Kentucky and Kansas.”
Kentucky carried out an execution in 2008 but has executed only three people since 1976. Kansas hasn’t executed anyone since 1965.
This is representative of a broader trend. In a Time cover story this week, David Von Drehle notes that even Texas has shifted, executing 40 people in 2000 and 10 in 2014. This year, Texas has imposed no new death sentences. “There, as elsewhere, prosecutors, judges and jurors are concluding that the modern death penalty is a failed experiment,” Von Drehle writes.
And even in South Dakota, for example, which decided to uphold capital punishment (even though executions there are relatively rare), the Legislature put the question to a vote.
“There is a movement away from the death penalty in general,” DPIC’s Dunham says. There’s “the very real risk of putting innocent people to death,” he says, referring to the 153 people formerly on death row who have since been proven innocent.
And then there’s the expense. In California, for instance, it costs an extra $90,000 a year to keep an inmate on death row, compared with the maximum-security prisons where inmates serve sentences of life without parole, according to a 2008 report from the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice.
“Twenty years from now, people that are for the death penalty are going to be in the same place as people that are against gay marriage,” GOP strategist Matthew Dowd said on ABC’s This Week. “The death penalty is going to go the way of opposition to gay marriage.”
Dunham agrees. “I think there are patterns that suggest this might happen. We are seeing the confluence, even in conservative circles, of a number of independently significant factors” — avoiding wrongful executions and unnecessary costs among them, he says. “At some point, you reach a critical point. We may soon find ourselves there.”
There’s a cost to that, too. In pleading to the Nebraska Legislature to uphold the death penalty, Governor Pete Ricketts argued that “heinous murderers such as the 10 on Nebraska’s death row have surrendered their lives by their own utter disregard for human life. The state affirms this reality through a sentence of death.” He said abolishing this penalty deprives the state “of its ability to carry out a just sentence.”
Here’s where those nine states stand:
- Arkansas’s bill passed a state senate committee in February and has since stalled.
- Delaware’s bill passed in the state senate on April 2. It was tabled in the House Judiciary Committee on May 13 but is still subject to a vote. Governor Jack Markell has said he would abolish the death penalty. “It doesn’t make us safer,” Markell told the News Journal. “Should the repeal bill come to my desk, I would sign it.”
- A bill in Indiana has not yet gone to a vote.
- In Kansas, a bill introduced by Republican Representative Steven Becker did not go to a vote in the House. WIBV News reported this month that there’s discussion of reviving the bill.
- A bipartisan bill in Kentucky has yet to go to a vote.
- A Republican-sponsored bill in Missouri has yet to be voted on.
- An Ohio bill was reintroduced in April.
- A Pennsylvania bill has yet to be voted on, but it may be moot. Governor Tom Wolf has instituted a death penalty moratorium, even though the state legislature hasn’t moved forward with an anti-death penalty bill.
- A bill in Texas has stalled.
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