Rolando Cruz twice was sentenced to death in Illinois for a crime he did not commit. | Al Podgorski~Sun-Times
Executions have dropped to a 20-year low in the United States, a bit of good news in a criminal justice system that’s been under widespread attack lately.
Just 15 years ago, the nation hit a peak with 98 executions. But last year, only 35 inmates were put to death, according to an annual study by the Death Penalty Information Center. Eighteen states, including Illinois, and the District of Columbia have abolished the death penalty.
Not long ago, politicians could easily add a few points to their approval ratings by trying to add new crimes to the list of crimes eligible for the death penalty.
Now, though, voters are coming to realize capital punishment isn’t applied only to those truly guilty of the most heinous crimes. In fact, all too many of those sentenced to die turned out to be innocent.
Just last year, seven people who were sentenced to die were exonerated by DNA testing, the center reported.
In Illinois, which has been a leader in its willingness to carefully re-evaluate doubtful capital cases, 20 men have been freed from Death Row, according to the center. Some were cleared only because of doubts about their guilt, but most were innocent and were exonerated.
The backgrounds of those cases are sobering. Crucial evidence kept secret. Bogus “expert” testimony. Witnesses who changed stories to help prosecutors. Fabricated police testimony. Prosecutors who twisted evidence and theories to secure convictions even when defendants’ guilt was in doubt.
Other factors have contributed to the decline in executions. The Supreme Court has taken some cases off the table by ruling that some defendants, such as those who are mentally disabled, are not eligible for the death penalty, no matter how serious their crimes.
A shortage of the drugs used in the execution process also has undermined support for capital punishment. States have tried other drug combinations with dismaying results. No one can feel comfortable at the sight of inmates gasping for air in a prolonged, and apparently painful process because the drugs that injected into them didn’t work as expected.
A third factor is the growing use of life imprisonment without possibility of parole as an alternative to capital punishment. Many jurors are more comfortable with that option over handing down a death penalty.
Another facet of the death penalty, which resonates with many who have protested the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Gardner in New York, is that in 2014 about two-thirds of those executed were African Americans or members of other minority groups, even as only one in six of their crimes were against African-American victims. Nearly half the murder victims in America are black, the center said, which indicates capital punishment is not meted out without regard to the race of the defendant.
Of course, the emergence of DNA testing gave us only a one-shot snapshot of the fairness of the death penalty. In the future, suspects cleared by DNA are unlikely to be convicted. At some point, the parade of DNA-based exonerations will end.
But with no genetic evidence in many cases, there’s a continuing likelihood that innocent people will be convicted of crimes. Americans should be skeptical of capital punishment even when exonerations fade from the headlines.
— Sun-Times Editorial Board