Death penalty’s most notorious members — and those about to enter that club — may now be breathing a sigh of relief in the wake of Tuesday’s announcement from Washington State governor Jay Inslee that he was ending capital punishment in the state of Washington as long as he is in office. The governor said he came to this decision because of the mounting uncertainty surrounding capital punishment. Thus, for the time being, some of the most notorious death penalty inmates are left hanging.
It’s been more than three years since Washington State executed an inmate on death row. The suspension will last until Inslee is no longer in office as there is no legislation yet on the books in Washington prohibiting it. Across the United States only seven inmates have been executed this year as eighteen states have already abolished the death penalty, including seven states in the past year. Capital punishment is now virtually unheard of outside the United States. Amnesty International reports that more than 100 countries have barred capital punishment. In 2011, only 21 countries around the globe carried out executions.
But while the national trend appears to be clearly moving towards prohibition of the death penalty, there are still many proponents. In fact, the subject continues to be hotly debated among the public, which still has the horrific images from the Boston Marathon bombings of last April 2013 on their minds. Just recently U.S. attorney general Eric Holder asked for the death penalty in the upcoming federal trial of one of the perpetrators of the Massachusetts tragedy — Dzhokar Tsarnaev.
Among the reasons cited for abolishing the death penalty are: a surprising number of innocent persons have been wrongly convicted and executed; the death penalty may constitute cruel and unusual punishment, as the methods used are often barbaric; capital punishment does little to deter others who commit heinous crimes; many death row inmates are considered mentally ill and should be in a psychiatric hospital, not jail; the death penalty is not applied fairly in the states that continue to have it; the death penalty violates religious principles; and the cases take years to go through the system with some murderers actually dying before their case can be concluded which costs states and taxpayers millions of dollars.
Among the reasons cited for keeping the death penalty are: religion has no place in the legal system; the appeals system is in place to protect the innocent; there are only a tiny fraction of death penalty appeals cases nationwide so it’s not a burden on the courts or taxpayers; and the public should definitely send a message that murderers, serial rapists, and uninhibited terrorists will not be tolerated. They do want a scenario where death penalty’s most notorious inmates are left hanging.
For those who do advocate the death penalty, their arguments are more visceral because of the dreadful nature of some of the crimes and their perpetrators and emotional, psychological and sometimes physical scaress left behind on families and friends of victims.
Consider this small handful of some of the most shocking crimes of recent times:
- Dzhokar Tsarnaev: the above-mentioned 21-year-old Boston Marathon bomber of April 2013 who is in jail and awaits trial.
- Adam Lanza: the 20-year-old who gunned own 20 children aged six and seven at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in December of 2012. He committed suicide.
- Seung-Hui Cho: the 23-year-old killed 32 people at Virginia Tech, Virginia in April 2007. James Holmes: this 24-year killed 12 people and wounded 58 in a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado on July 20, 2012.
While some murderers are shot by police and others commit suicide, many are captured, stand trial and are either sentenced to multiple life sentences or receive the death sentence For the ghoulish, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s website chronicles the life and last words of executed persons there. Currently the site lists the names of 510 inmates who have been executed, including Suzanne Basso who was just excecuted on February 5, 2014, the 14th woman executed (by lethal injection) in the U.S. since 1976.
Meanwhile, as the debate on capital punishment continues, the death penalty’s most notorious inmates are left hanging as the country continues to wrestle with this controversial issue.
By Jim McCullaugh
Texas Department of Criminal Justice
Death Penalty Information Center