OUR VIEW: A new report suggests several states are at least somewhat putting the brakes on the death penalty, but Alabama remains stuck in the fast lane


By Birmingham News editorial board

December 26, 2009, 5:31AM

The Death Penalty Information Center’s annual report last week offered encouragement to those who oppose capital punishment, at least in some parts of the country.

The center reports some of the bigger death penalty states seem to be slowing down a bit, sentencing fewer inmates to death and slowly shrinking their population of condemned inmates.

Sadly, Alabama is stuck in the fast lane.

According to the report, even Texas, which consistently is the nation’s leader in carrying out executions, has seen the size of its Death Row drop by more than 25 percent in the past 10 years, mainly because of fewer death sentences being imposed.

Alabama’s Death Row population has increased since 1999, and not because it has been slacking off in executions.

By the time the ball drops in Times Square on Dec. 31, the Heart of Dixie will have executed six inmates this year, the second-highest number of any state and more than 11 percent of all executions in the country. Our Death Row population, at 200, is the nation’s fifth biggest.

This is not something that should make us proud.

Although arguments can be made in support of the death penalty, they don’t override the compelling arguments that can be made against this irreversible punishment.

The Death Penalty Information Center, which comes down on the opposing side, said the reasons the death penalty is falling out of favor can be traced back to several factors:

•Very real concerns about costs. In lean economic times, states are more keenly aware than ever of the expense of clearing the high legal hurdles that should be and are required for putting a person to death.

•Very real concerns about accuracy. In 2009, the center said, nine men who had been sentenced to death were exonerated and freed — the second-highest number since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976.

•Laws that offer life-without-parole alternatives in sentencing. Judges, juries and prosecutors are recognizing dangerous inmates do not have to be put to death to keep society safe.

Count Alabama in on all these fronts.

There is no reason at all to be confident here that mistakes in death sentences aren’t being made; that the people on Death Row got adequate legal representation; or that death sentences are handed out fairly without regard to the wealth, status or color of the people involved. And speaking of fairness, Alabama is unique in the country in letting elected judges sentence defendants to die even when a jury decides a death sentence is not appropriate.

For all of these reasons and more, Alabama should, at the very least, be moving toward scaling back its use of the death penalty. It would be even more appropriate if we stopped it altogether.

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