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States put brakes on capital punishment
Since 1973, 141 people have been sentenced to death but subsequently had their convictions overturned for reasons including withheld evidence by prosecutors, coerced confessions and false or unreliable witness testimony, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
About half of those exonerations have occurred in the past 15 years, and 18 took place after the discovery of DNA evidence that contradicted court testimony or pointed to other assailants.
None of the 1,319 people executed since 1976 has been legally exonerated after execution, although activists and legal groups have argued for their innocence in numerous cases.
“You can release an innocent person from prison, but you can’t release them from the grave,” former Illinois death row inmate Randy Steidl told Northern Kentucky University’s the Northerner newspaper last month. He spent 17 years in prison for double murder before he was acquitted in a 2004 retrial because of a lack of evidence and a recanted witness statement.
Another factor in declining executions over the past two years has been a national shortage of sodium thiopental, a barbiturate once commonly used in three-drug lethal injection cocktails.
The drug was pulled off the market in 2011 after its only U.S. producer moved operations to Italy. The Italian government prevented the product from being exported for use in executions.
States including Ohio and Virginia have countered by using pentobarbital, a powerful barbiturate that can be used for single-drug executions, instead of sodium thiopental.
While polls show that sentiments against the death penalty in the U.S. are at their highest level in 40 years, a majority of Americans still favor capital punishment.
A Gallup poll last year found that 61 percent of Americans support a death penalty in cases of murder, and last month voters in California — which, with 724 death row inmates, houses one-quarter of the nation’s condemned prisoners — voted down a referendum that would have repealed capital punishment.
In Virginia, an effort is under way by some lawmakers to broaden the death penalty by eliminating the state’s so-called “triggerman rule,” which in most cases prohibits the state from executing a person convicted of first-degree murder if that person was not the only one who physically committed the act.
The rule has exceptions for murder-for-hire schemes, which allowed the state to execute Teresa Lewis in 2010, and for acts of terrorism, which it used to execute Beltway sniper mastermind John Allen Muhammad in 2009.
Delegate Robert B. Bell, Albemarle Republican, said he thinks the death penalty is an effective deterrent that has prevented criminals from killing witnesses to lesser crimes or escalating non-capital offenses such as kidnap and rape.
Virginia has executed 109 people since 1976, second to Texas’ 491.
© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
About the Author
David Hill joined The Washington Times in February 2011 as a Maryland political reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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