Here’s Why 2014 Has Been a Big Year for the Death Penalty Debate

CHANTAL VALERY/AFP/Getty Images

Chantal Valery/AFP/Getty Images

Capital punishment remains a controversial practice, but one that remains in the U.S. despite its removal in other nations. That said, public opinion has changed over the last few decades, and while there’s still a majority in support of capital punishment, the numbers are dropping. Pew Research put approval at 78 percent in 1996 and 55 percent in 2013, and Gallup was slightly higher with 80 percent approval in 1994 and 60 percent in 2013.

However, 2014 has seen major attention drawing legal efforts on behalf of death penalty cases. The most recent ruling highlights one of the biggest systematic problems with our death penalty process — and it’s no longer about public opinion, at least in California. It’s back to the basics of cruel and unusual punishment, but instead of focusing on the method of execution, the California District Court case is instead looking at the wait time — the delay before death rather than death itself.

The case was brought by petitioner Ernest Dewayne Jones who, in 1995, was sentenced to death. Jones is still being held in wait, with no idea if or when his execution will take place. The order, from Judge Cormac J. Carney, finding California’s death penalty system unconstitutional, noted that 900 people have been sentenced to death since 1978 and only thirteen of those 900 have been put to death. More inmates on death row have died from suicide or other natural causes than have been executed as per their sentencing. “Systemic delay has made their execution so unlikely that the death sentence carefully and deliberately imposed by the jury has been quietly transformed into one no rational jury or legislature could ever impose: life in prison, with the remote possibility of death,” write Carney.

Based on the Condemned Inmate Summary List as of June 2014, the court finds that 40 percent of inmates awaiting execution — Jones being one of them — have been waiting for more than nineteen years, and as the size grows, the wait time and delays are exacerbated. Elisabeth A. Semel, director of the death penalty clinic at Berkley University of California law school, told The New York Times that the case would likely be referenced in cases to follow, both in California and in other U.S. states. She said Carney’s decision is “a stunningly important and unprecedented ruling,” and calls the opinion both “factually dense” and “well-reasoned.” Even so, she believes the ruling is almost certainly going to see state appeal at the Ninth Circuit level.

A botched lethal injection earlier this year also drew national attention to the issue of capital punishment, specifically on the drugs being administered today. Clayton Lockett, the inmate in question, survived 43 minutes longer than the drugs should have allowed him to, and died after convulsions of a heart attack. Madeline Cohen, an Oklahoma assistant federal public defender, said that people feel little need to give people like Lockett “a human death when they didn’t give their victim a humane death,” but that “states have turned to secrecy in the face of drug shortages,” according to Tulsa World.

Drug shortages are in part a result of the fact that overseas drug companies are hesitant to ship drugs to the U.S. with the knowledge that said drug might be used for executions. Sodium thiopental — the drug used to render the person unconscious before pancuronium bromide stops their breathing and potassium chloride is administered to stop their heart — is no longer produced in the U.S., with American companies concerned that business with European companies might suffer as a result. However, lawsuits on that front have not yielded the sort of ruling for systematic change as we see in Carney’s decision.

Whether the ruling will actually survive an appeal to a higher court is arguable, and Semel admits, according to Time, that “prosecutors will argue that the order does not have the effect of ‘automatically’ invalidating the death penalty in the ceases of other individuals who have been sentenced to death or who are facing capital prosecution.” Even so, should it stand, the ruling would be a major weapon in anti-death-penalty arsenals, or at the very least will demand reform to the present system. This is a positive step towards prison reform, but arguably will push systematic improvements in one area, potentially at the cost of other areas needing attention and affecting much larger groups of inmates. Reallocation of resources and funds in the already taxed correctional system will be necessary. Even so, the ruling may spark change within the system that has been a long time and coming, even if it doesn’t change the status of capital punishment within the United States as some might hope.

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