Decline of Death Row (U.S. & Japan – two of highly devoloped nations to still use the death penalty)

Jul 05, 2008 04:30 AM

WASHINGTON BUREAU

WASHINGTON–Mark Dean Schwab was the picture of calm as he munched on his final meal of eggs, bacon, sausage, hash browns and chocolate milk.

More importantly, when death came he was a model prisoner, no twitching, no squirming, no shouting.

He was motionless in two minutes, dead in 13.

The state of Florida exhaled.

The executioner was back in business.

Schwab was executed by lethal injection Tuesday, 16 years to the day he was sentenced to death for the abduction, rape and murder of an 11-year-old boy and 16 months after an infamously botched execution stilled the death chamber in the state.

He became the 10th person executed in the United States since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in April that the lethal injection method of death is constitutional, ending an effective seven-month moratorium on American executions.

The most closely watched state was Florida, a state with a morbid history of executions, including a period when its notorious electric chair, dubbed Old Sparky, once appeared to send flames out of the top of one condemned man’s head, and covered another in blood as he died.

Then, in December 2006, Angel Diaz took 34 minutes to die when the executioner injected a lethal cocktail into his muscles, causing him to grimace and roll his eyes up into his head.

At one point he was heard to mutter "What’s going on?" and he died with severe chemical burns on his arm.

Despite this short-term spike in executions, there are still signs that the American executioner is an increasingly endangered species, work becoming more infrequent, the work site more regional.

Fewer death sentences are being handed out. The imposition of the sentence is now largely a southern phenomenon.

All 10 this year have been carried out south of the Mason-Dixon Line and almost two out of every three executions last year occurred in Texas.

While the death penalty remains on the books in 36 states, there have been no executions in 40 of the 50 states in 18 months.

Concerns remain about: the disproportionate number of blacks executed; the statistical reality that the death penalty is more likely to be meted out if the victim is white; and the increasing number of death-row inmates exonerated by evidence of their innocence.

Some 129 inmates facing death have been released because they are innocent over the past 35 years, but the rate of exoneration has accelerated this decade.

The Supreme Court last week overturned the death sentence imposed on a child rapist in Louisiana, eliminating a crime other than murder (with the exception of crimes against the state such as treason, terrorism or espionage) for which the death penalty can be imposed.

That decision comes after other rulings in previous years eliminated the death penalty for the mentally retarded and those who were under 18 when they committed their crime.

Now, there are signs that the debate over the death penalty could move from the emotional to the economic.

A study released in California this week, the state’s first comprehensive look at capital punishment since it was reinstated three decades ago, found the system "dysfunctional and close to collapse" and a drain on the state treasury.

The study found the state could save more than $100 million per year if it replaced death sentences with sentences of life in prison without parole, and it found the state spends $138 million per year on a system that has executed 13 persons in 30 years.

Meanwhile, the state has 673 inmates on death row and the average time from sentence to execution runs up to 25 years, both the highest in the country.

"It would take a courageous leader to stand up and end the death penalty on economic grounds," says Richard Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

"But there is no cheap way out of this. It is either costly or nothing and nobody is getting anything out of this in California – retribution, justice, or whatever you might expect out of the death penalty."

Dieter believes the California debate could be the first to start a "snowball effect" across the country, with rational arguments overtaking emotion.

Even though 2007 marked a 13-year low in executions, with 42 Americans put to death, the U.S. still ranks with Japan as one of only two highly developed nations to still use the death penalty.

It ranked either fifth or sixth, depending on the source, in executions in 2007, behind China, Iran, Pakistan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

Amnesty International, in its annual report on the death penalty released in April, said 88 per cent of all known executions take place in just five countries, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the United States.

According to Cass Sunstein, a noted professor and commentator at Harvard Law School, no credible study has ever found that the death penalty has been a deterrent to crime.

In a brief interview with the Star and a commentary he co-authored in The Washington Post, he points to the homicide rate in Canada and the homicide rate in the United States, saying they track each other regardless of the differences in the manner in which the two countries treat murderers.

(Canada abolished the death penalty in 1976 and the last execution was carried out in Toronto’s Don Jail 46 years ago).

Similarly, he found no difference in homicide rates in 12 states that have not executed a prisoner since 1960 compared with those that had adopted or rejected the death penalty during that time frame.

So, why does America. still execute its killers?

It seems it will not elect leaders who would seek to overturn it – at least on the national stage.

George W. Bush came to office after overseeing executions in the country’s most prolific capital punisher, Texas, and he backed it nationally as a deterrent.

When the Supreme Court ruled on child rape last week, the two men who would replace him, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain, both criticized the court and said states should have the right to put child rapists to death.

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