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NEWS-SENTINEL EDITORIAL: Continual decline in executions makes death penalty ineffective as deterrent

A report released Dec. 17 showed a decline in capital punishment in the U.S. for the fifth straight year with only a few states carrying out executions.

Although there have been more than 1,500 executions in the 42 years since the death penalty resumed in the country in 1977, they are now rare or non-existent in most of the nation.

The Death Penalty Information Center, which compiled the report for 2019, says there were only 22 executions this year and that they took place in only seven states — Texas (the leader with 9), Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Missouri and South Dakota.

And for the fifth straight year, there were no executions west of Texas. New Hampshire has become the 21st state to abolish the death penalty, and there are 32 states, including Indiana, that either don’t have a death penalty or have not used that option in more than a decade.

According to deathpenaltyinfo.org, the last time Indiana carried out an execution was on Dec. 11, 2009, when Matthew Wrinkles became the 20th execution carried out since the state reinstated the death penalty in 1973.

As we mused in an editorial in 2016, we can either take pride in the fact that Indiana is not promiscuous in its use of capital punishment, or we can ask if there is really any point to keeping a penalty so rarely used that it can’t possibly be a deterrent as intended.

No Indiana jury has sentenced a defendant to die since 2013.

Joseph Corcoran, convicted of murdering his brother, James Corcoran, and three other men in Fort Wayne in 1988, is currently the only person from Allen County sitting on death row in this state.

The decline in death sentences in Indiana began in 1989, following nine years in which the state averaged more than six death sentences per year, according to deathpenaltyinfo.org. Death sentences averaged only 2.6 per year in the 1990s and 0.9 in the first decade of this century.

The last federal execution was in 2003. But Attorney General William Barr announced in July that federal executions would resume this month, setting five execution dates for Dec. 9 through Jan. 15, 2020.

“The Justice Department upholds the rule of law,” he said, “and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.”

However, a federal district court issued a preliminary injunction temporarily halting those executions, and the U.S. Supreme Court on Dec. 6 turned away the Trump administration’s plea to begin conducting lethal injection executions at the federal prison in Terre Haute, which houses the federal execution chamber as well as male inmates who have been sentenced to death.

Death sentences have declined more than 80 percent from the 1990s, said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. He said fewer jurisdictions are seeking the death penalty, and juries seem more willing to sentence defendants to the alternative option of life terms with no chance of parole.

Other possible factors in the decline are the high cost and long duration of trials and the appeal process.

In a statement to the Indianapolis Star, state corrections officials attributed the pause in executions in Indiana to the unavailability of execution drugs, saying “pharmaceutical suppliers … now decline purchase requests from the Indiana Department of Correction.”

Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill blamed that on “a concerted effort, for a number of years, by certain groups to place pressures on pharmaceutical companies.”

Dunham, however, said, “Pharmaceutical companies uniformly have said they don’t want their medicines used to execute prisoners. And that shouldn’t be surprising, because their corporate mission is to create medicines to save lives and improve lives and not to take lives.”

So what should the state do? Putting executions on hold indefinitely, which is the trend, has the effect of eliminating capital punishment. But do we really want to bring back the more barbaric options of a gas chamber, hanging, firing squad or the electric chair?

As we’ve said before, maybe it’s time to put the issue before the public or in a summer study for our legislators.