More Lawmakers Take a Stand Against Death Penalty

By Vesna Jaksic
The National Law Journal
Tuesday, March 6, 2007

A perfect storm of problematic executions, wrongful convictions and recent court rulings against the practice of lethal injection has led a growing number of states to challenge the death penalty through lawsuits and legislative action.

Adding still more to the momentum are a public backlash against the cost of capital cases and the development of more effective defense techniques, such as mitigation specialists who humanize death row inmates.

Eleven states have halted some or all executions — including Florida and Maryland in December — and more lawmakers have been speaking out against the death penalty.

Last month alone, Maryland’s governor urged legislators to replace the death penalty with life without parole, North Carolina’s governor said executions should be halted until issu! es surr ounding lethal injection are solved and Montana’s Senate voted to abolish the death penalty.

Court decisions have also continued to come down, such as a Delaware judge granting class action status on Feb. 22 to all death row inmates based on a case challenging lethal injection. Jackson v. Danberg, No. Civ. 06-3000-SLR (D. Del.). “It’s probably the strongest momentum since the death penalty was reinstated in the mid-1970s,” said John Holdridge, director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Capital Punishment Project, which advocates against the death penalty.

The Death Penalty Information Center recently listed the following 11 states as those that have stopped some or all executions: Arkansas, California, Delaware, Florida, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, South Dakota and Tennessee, according to Richard Dieter, executive director of the nonprofit Washington, D.C.-based organization, which opposes capital punishment.

North! Caroli na’s officials were in talks last week in hopes of resolving the situation, and the state’s attorney general hinted on March 1 that a solution may be imminent. The executions have stopped either through government-issued moratoriums or judges’ rulings, and have had varying effect.

In South Dakota, for example, Gov. Mike Rounds on Feb. 23 signed legislation that clarifies the mixture of drugs to be used in executions, which is an issue that has delayed just one execution, said his press secretary, Mitch Krebs. The law goes in effect on July 1, and Krebs said other executions are expected to resume as scheduled.

Meanwhile, in New Jersey, executions have been on hold since January 2006, when the state Legislature appointed a commission to study the issue. This January, the group recommended the death penalty be abolished. Reverend M. William Howard of Bethany Baptist Church in Newark, N.J., who chaired the 13-member New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission, agr! eed wit h speculation that the state could become the next to abolish the death penalty.

“I don’t think that’s a wild idea at all,” he said, pointing out that Gov. Jon Corzine has pledged to sign such legislation into law.