Connecticut Abolishes Death Penalty – Is Decades of Work Turning the Tide?

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April 25, 2012; Source: Washington Post

Yesterday, Connecticut Gov. Daniel Malloy quietly signed a bill that would abolish the death penalty in that state. In doing so, Connecticut became the 17th state to abolish it. The last state to abolish the death penalty was Illinois, and the next may be Maryland; Kansas and Montana are also considering it. California has a controversial ballot measure set for November that, if passed, would move 22 percent of the country’s death row inmates in one fell swoop.

NPQ’s reason for taking note of this story is that a number of nonprofits have waged a long campaign both against the death penalty and against injustices (racism) in how death sentences are meted out. Just last week, a North Carolina judge drew upon the state’s new Racial Justice law to reduce a death row inmate’s sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The Madison Times reports that “Judge Weeks’ ruling was grounded in a study of prosecutorial actions in the death-penalty proceedings of all 160 of the state’s death-row inmates that was released in December. The study, done by two members of the Michigan State University law school, found that over the last two decades North Carolina state prosecutors have excluded black potential jurors from capital murder juries more than twice as often as they did non-blacks. Prosecutors excluded nearly 53 percent of the black potential jurors they questioned compared to about 26 percent of the non-black ones.” Kentucky has a similar law.

While some see the Connecticut move and others as an indication that America is losing its taste for capital punishment, others do not believe this to be the case, pointing out that the death penalty is largely being abolished in states where it is rarely carried out. Since 1976, 1,060 people have been executed in the South, 150 in the Midwest, 75 in the West and 4 in the Northeast. Connecticut has put only one person to death during that period.

NPQ recognizes the long decades of work it has taken to get to this point. For instance, the work of the Innocence Project has probably been pivotal in helping to expose and publicize cases where people were wrongly convicted and sentenced to death, although its position has been to call for a moratorium on the death penalty and this has given pause to many. Amnesty International monitors the use of death penalty laws internationally and according to the Hudson Valley Press, the NAACP, which holds elimination of the death penalty as a major organizational focus, has been working on the repeal in Connecticut for years.

But in naming a few groups we do not mean to leave the scores of others out. The repeals we are seeing are a result, in other words, of decades of work by multiple local, national and international organizations, many of them nonprofit, and with members that were willing to take a public stand even when it was enormously difficult to do so. More information can be found at the Death Penalty Information Center. –Ruth McCambridge