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Despite 100 Years of Activism, the Death Penalty Still Won't Die

State-sanctioned killing has been banned in fits and starts over the course of American history, a reflection of a national character that is alternately progressive and puritan.

by Mike Pearl
Aug 14 2015, 6:30pm

Photo via Flickr user Tim Menzies

On Thursday, Connecticut's Supreme Court abolished the death penalty. The ruling was certainly great news for the 11 forlorn souls condemned to die in the state, but it was also a bit confusing for anyone who was paying attention back in 2012, when lawmakers there originally abolished the ultimate punishment for future prisoners.

But that's how things have played out over the course of American history with state-sanctioned killing: It's been banned in fits and starts, a reflection of a national character that is alternately progressive and puritan.

Laws governing executions have varied across America since colonial times, but by the end of the nineteenth century, the movement to abolish the death penalty was in full swing. During the Progressive Era, when women's suffrage and concern for the exploitation of immigrant laborers were atop the national consciousness, the death penalty was abolished in ten states between 1897 and 1917, only to be reinstated in eight of them by the 1930s. (Some scholars believe reinstatement was a response to a combination of economic recession and vigilante violence; lynchings in the Jim Crow South were common at the time.)

In the middle of the century, support for the death penalty declined again, and in 1972, the US Supreme Court ruling Furman vs. Georgia brought about a temporary national moratorium on executions. That moratorium was lifted by the Supreme Court in 1976, and the following year, a Utah firing squad shot an inmate named Gary Gilmore.

Today, 19 states and the district of Columbia have death-penalty bans in place. And even though the Connecticut ruling doesn't have any direct impact on death penalty laws across the country, "that doesn't mean it doesn't have persuasive value in other states," Robert Dunham, Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center told VICE. Nebraska ditched its own capital punishment regime earlier this year, and the one-two punch of wildly different political cultures ditching execution could resonate widely.

As for the condemned, if you're on death row and suddenly can't legally be executed, you aren't just let into the general prison population right away. "People on the row will then file motions in the state courts in which they were convicted, and then the courts would overturn their death sentences, and impose the alternative sentence," Dunham said.

The move to "gen pop" from death row often represents a major improvement in quality of life for affected inmates. In the book The Wrong Man: A True Story of Innocence on Death Row, law professor Michael Mello provides an account of his correspondence with an innocent death row inmate named Joe Spaziano. When Spaziano gets temporarily moved out of death row, it's a game-changer:

In the general population, Joe could hang out with his Outlaw brothers who were also incarcerated at Florida State Prison. He was given a job outside the walls (but inside the razor-wire fences) picking up trash. He began a cartoon autobiography of his twenty years in prison for crimes he didn't commit. And he could call me on the telephone pretty much anytime the prison phone was free.

In her dissent on Thursday, Connecticut Supreme Court Justice Carmen E. Espinosa took issue with language in the majority opinion about how the death penalty "no longer comports with evolving standards of decency," noting that, "there is nothing that requires that the standards of decency evolve only in one direction."

That's not to say the reinstatement of the death penalty has gotten anyone tossed back onto death row, according to Dunham. "Once the decision is final as a matter of law, the death penalty is gone from that particular case," he said.

So while the death penalty has shown incredible resilience in the face of more than a century of abolitionist sentiment, the 11 Connecticut prisoners on their way out of death row are almost certainly never going to see the inside of an execution chamber.

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