Friday, January 1, 2010

US death penalty brought into question

Posted By Susanna Woods On December 18, 2009 @ 1:06 pm In World

The US death penalty has been brought into question following the release of James Bain, wrongly sentenced to death and now freed thanks to DNA evidence.

The US death penalty has been brought into question following the release of a man wrongly imprisoned for 35 years. This brings the total number of exonerations to 140 since 1973 – 10 of which occurred this year.

The issue has been highlighted by the case of US citizen James Bain, who was charged with the kidnap and rape of a nine-year-old boy when he was just 19. Throughout his imprisonment Bain protested his innocence and now, aged 54, he has been cleared and set free following new DNA proof.

Washington’s Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) has released its 2009 year-end report, which has revealed the number of people sentenced to death in the US has fallen considerably over the last few years – in 2009 there were 106 death sentences, compared with 328 in 1994.

Sadly, one possible reason for the drop in executions is the current economic crisis – for example, the cost of just one execution in Maryland is US$37 million (£23m). According to the DPIC, 11 states have considered abolishing the death sentence because of the high costs involved.

However, with the number of death sentences rapidly decreasing, perhaps it is a sign that the sentence could one day be abolished completely in the US. Even states notorious for issuing death sentences have seen a decrease in executions – during the 1990s, Texas averaged 34 death sentences a year and Virginia averaged six. This year, Texas had nine death sentences and Virginia had one.

Richard Dieter, DPIC’s Executive Director and author of the report, said: “The annual number of death sentences in the US has dropped for seven straight years and is 60% less than in the 1990s. In the last two years, three states have abolished capital punishment and a growing number of states are asking whether it’s worth keeping. This entire decade has been marked by a declining use of the death penalty.”

The DPIC also revealed that a nationwide poll of US police chiefs, carried out earlier this year, stated they did not believe that the death penalty acted as a crime deterrent and “rated it as one of the most inefficient uses of taxpayer money in fighting crime”.

3,300 people are currently on death row in America, some for a long time as in the case of Florida’s William Thompson, who was on death row for more than 32 years. A judge, Justice John Paul Stevens, commented on Thompson’s case and called the treatment “dehumanizing”, noting that Thompson “had endured especially severe conditions of confinement, spending up to 23 hours per day in isolation in a 6- by 9-foot cell.”

Currently, 35 out of 50 US states have the death penalty – down one from last year as New Mexico ended the penalty in March 2009. Only 11 out of these 35 actually carried out an execution this year.

Copy on a US pro-death penalty website spoke in favour of execution: “With a yearly average of 15,000 murders, the fact that we are reaching 1,000 executions in only a little more than 30 years is proof that capital punishment has been reserved for the worst of the worst.

“The attention given to the execution of 1,000 murderers is repugnant, especially when the loudest voices think the death of a convicted murderer is a tragedy. Yet the deaths and suffering of countless victims is only an easily-ignored statistic.”

In the case of the recently-freed James Bain, the Innocence Project of Florida (IPF) helped secure his release. Bain had previously submitted handwritten motions four times requesting DNA testing, but he was denied each time. An appeals court overturned the denial of his fifth appeal.

Bain, having been imprisoned for 35 years, had missed much of life’s advances. He used a cell (mobile) phone for the first time in his life, and told CNN: “I’m not upset [about what happened] because I understand what took place. I always had God on my side.”

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