A noteworthy event occurred on the last day of 2014. Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, on his way out of the door, decreed that the last four inmates on death row will not be executed. Resentencing the men to life in prison without parole, O’Malley said that state-sanctioned murder “does not serve the public good.”
Until now, no politician with a future – O’Malley may have a future, as a presidential candidate – would’ve dared to diss the death penalty. Such a stance was assumed to be political suicide; it certainly hurt Michael Dukakus, the anti-execution Democrat back in 1988. But fortunately, the zeitgeist has shifted. Attacking the death penalty is not necessarily fatal anymore.
As evidenced by the latest polls and stats, we’ve reached a tipping point in our national ‘tude. If current trends continue, we’ll no longer rank among the top five execution nations, a dubious achievement award that we currently share with these bastions of humanist democracy: Iran, Iraq, China, and Saudi Arabia.
Only 35 people were executed in America in 2014 – the lowest in two decades, a nearly 65 percent drop since 1999. (The ’14 figure would’ve been far lower if our top execution states – Texas, Missouri, and Florida, responsible for 28 of the 35 – had eased off the needle.) Plus, only 72 people were sentenced to death in 2014; back in the ’90s, there were roughly 300 such sentences a year. Basically, today’s prosecutors are seeking the death penalty less than they used to, and juries are giving life without parole more than they used to.
And that’s all in sync with shifting public opinion. In 2014, The Washington Post-ABC News poll asked Americans which punishment they preferred for the most serious crimes: the death penalty or life in prison. For the first time ever, a majority picked the latter option: 52 percent chose life, only 42 percent chose death. Turns out, O’Malley’s executive action was smack in the mainstream: in the poll, swing-voting independents chose the life in prison option, 51-41.
So that’s the good news. The bad news is that the few people who still get executed tend to be those least capable of mounting a decent legal defense – because they’re poor, or intellectually challenged (the PC term for low IQ), or mentally ill. A ’14 study in the Hastings Law Journal concluded that most recently executed inmates suffered from significant cognitive and behavioral problems; in fact, more than half had serious illnesses such as schizophrenia.
Nancy Leong, a Colorado law professor, describes a typical ’14 farce: “Georgia executed Robert Wayne Holsey, an intellectually impaired man with an IQ of 70. During Holsey’s trial, his lawyer drank a quart of vodka every night. The lawyer failed to present evidence of Holsey’s intellectual disability or to hire a mitigation specialist who could have shed light on Holsey’s background, despite receiving money from the court to do so. The lawyer was disbarred and imprisoned for theft of client funds in an unrelated case shortly after Holsey was sentenced to death.”
Actually, if states like Georgia and Texas (which two years ago executed a guy with an IQ of 61) really want to fight crime, they should just tighten their pathetically lax gun laws. That would enhance public safety far more effectively than their killing of mentally impaired inmates. But I digress.
The upside is, we’ve come a long way from the draconian early ’90s, when candidate Bill Clinton touted his “toughness” by blessing the execution of an Arkansas guy who was so mentally impaired that he chose to save the dessert from his last meal, figuring that he’d eat it later. No candidate to the left of Rick Perry or Ted Cruz is likely to do that today. That’s progress.
By the way, back in the early ’90s at least one prominent politician refused to pander. His words then resonate even more strongly now: “The death penalty legitimizes the ultimate act of vengeance in the name of the state, violates fundamental human rights, fuels a mistaken belief by some that justice is being served and demeans those who strive to preserve human life and dignity.”
Rest in peace, Mario Cuomo.
Speaking of jail sentences:
Ex-Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, the conservative family-values Republican short-listed by Mitt Romney for the ’12 veep slot, was sentenced yesterday to two years in the slammer. He’d greased the government wheels for a vitamin hustler who had given him all kinds of cool stuff. The judge and jury apparently didn’t buy McConnell’s claim that it was all his wife’s fault.
Wow. Two years ago at this time, he was mentioned as a 2016 presidential contender; today, he’s poised to go to jail – the first Virginia governor to suffer that fate. I’m reminded of the last lines of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias.” A traveler in the desert discovers a half-sunken statue, with words on the pedestal:
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”Nothing beside remains. Round the decayOf that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,The lone and level sands stretch far away.