Today was an important one for those who watch social trends. Rhode Island became the 10th state to legalize same-sex marriage, and Maryland became the 18th state to abolish the death penalty. It was also the first state south of the Mason-Dixon line to get rid of capital punishment.
Those trends are heading one way: toward marriage equality and no death penalty. According to the Associated Press:
Maryland State Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Democrat and constitutional law professor who opposes the death penalty, said he believes pressure is building around the country to focus law enforcement resources on things that are proven to lower the homicide rate.
“The trend lines are clear,” Raskin said. “There’s nobody who’s adding the death penalty to their state laws. Everybody is taking it away.”
Well, not quite everybody, at least not yet. I suspect Texas is a long way from abolishing it. But most states, including Washington, are executing far fewer people than they used to.
Much of the reason is cost: A capital punishment case can cost millions to prosecute over years of appeals. With tight budgets, officials can find better uses for limited funding than seeking the death penalty. Better to just go for life imprisonment without parole.
Another reason is that cases that heavily depend on eyewitness accounts or circumstantial evidence aren’t being prosecuted as capital cases much anymore; juries want to see corroborating DNA and other forensic evidence they’ve come to expect from watching TV crime series like “CSI.” There have been too many cases in which the convicted killer has later been found to be innocent – after years of incarceration or even after execution.
I’m of the opinion that having the death penalty isn’t worth the chance of mistakingly executing even one person. The only value I can see in it is as a bargaining tool for prosecutors to convince someone to plead guilty, divulge the location of a victim or confess to other crimes.
The News Tribune hasn’t come out against the death penalty; the institutional opinion is that it should be reserved for the worst of the worst. (My issue with that: We’re not executing a serial killer like Gary Ridgway. Isn’t he the worst of the worst?) But the TNT position could evolve, as it has on other issues. I’m hoping that day will come – and that I get to write the editorial.