The steady downward trend in the use of the death penalty in the United States represents a "fairly irreversible decline" and suggests a time when the death penalty will be abolished, says David Bruck, a Washington and Lee University law professor.
Statistics released this week by the Death Penalty Information Center indicate that the number of executions in the U.S. has decreased by 75 percent since 1996 and is at its lowest level since capital punishment was reinstated in the United States in 1976.
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Bruck, clinical professor of law at W&L and director of the Virginia Capital Case Clearinghouse, cites several reasons for the decline.
States that still use the death penalty, he says, now provide an option for juries to sentence defendants to life imprisonment without parole. And, he adds, juries that do sentencing in capital cases must be told about that option.
"So juries understand that society is protected either way and the death penalty is generally not necessary as a way of protecting society against dangerous murderers," said Bruck.
Another reason for the decline, in Bruck's view, involves the number of people on death row who have been shown to be convicted in error, sometimes by use of DNA testing.
"Since the 1990s, the American public has received something of a shock about the fallibility of the criminal justice system," he said. "For a long time, it was thought that the only mistakes the system ever made was failing to convict or failing to imprison dangerous people.
"Now, largely because of DNA, we have found that the system makes a lot of mistakes. That has led to a broad readjustment in people's attitudes. The public still tends to favor capital punishment, but public support is much more nuanced. There is more anxiety that the death penalty runs the risk of causing disastrous errors that cannot be undone."
Bruck said that the substantial increase in the quality of defense that is available to indigent clients is another reason for the decline.
"We recognize that who goes to death row and who doesn't is more a case of who your lawyer is than of what you did, or even who you did it to," he said.
Bruck believes that the 75 percent decrease in the number of death sentences over a 15-year period "tells us that we are headed in the same direction as the rest of the democratic world, and that, in the fullness of time, the United States will abolish the death penalty just as all of western Europe, all of the western democracies have already done."
School of Law Director of Communications