January 18, 2012
DALLAS (SMU) – It has been 35 years since the United States reinstated the death penalty with the execution of Gary Gilmore by a Utah firing squad on Jan. 17, 1977. Since that date, 1,278 prisoners have been executed nationwide – more than a third of them in Texas.
More than 3,200 people are housed on death row in the U.S., but internationally recognized human rights educator Rick Halperin notes that executions are on the wane. Abolition of the death penalty, Halperin predicts, “is only a matter of time.”
“We’re in the beginning stages of ending the death penalty in this country,” says Halperin, director of SMU’s Embrey Human Rights Program and former chair of Amnesty International USA. “Just 78 people were sentenced to death in 2011 last year, as opposed to 112 in 2011, and that’s down from a high of 300 15 years ago,” he notes (CNN). “Polling shows a majority of people now favor of life without parole (CNN), and support for the death penalty is at a 39-year-low (Gallup).”
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled existing death penalty statutes unconstitutional in 1972 in Furman v. Georgia, finding that its administration in 40 states was both arbitrary and capricious. Sentencing guidelines and other procedural reforms resulted in the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976 and Gilmore’s death by firing squad in 1977 ended the U.S. moratorium on executions.
What accounts for the waning support? “People have become better educated,” Halperin says, pointing out that the 281 post-conviction DNA exonerations to date in the United States have highlighted how “racist and arbitrary” the process can be.
Understanding the death penalty’s ramifications “takes a lot of rational discussion about an emotionally charged subject,” he says. Recent discussions have stemmed from heavy media coverage concerning the validity of executing Troy Davis in Georgia and Cameron Todd Willingham in Texas; Gov. Rick Perry calling capital punishment “ultimate justice” and eliciting audience cheers during an early Republican primary debate; and Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber banning executions there in November 2011, becoming the fifth U.S. state to abolish or back away from the death penalty since 2004.
“The death of Gary Gilmore 35 years ago threw America into an abyss from which it has not escaped,” Halperin says. “America went down the path that said it is OK to kill people, at one point nearly one a week, with little to no outcry about a system that kills the innocent as well as the guilty. How many innocent people have to be killed before Americans say ‘enough’?”
Halperin can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 214-768-3284.