Human Rights

5 Things You Didn't Know About the Death Penalty

Some of the more surprising, and unknown, facts about the death penalty that shed light on the country's shifting attitudes toward capital punishment.

"Unwise and unjustified" -- that's what recently retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens says about the country's continued use of capital punishment. "The finality of an execution always ends that possibility" that inmates could repent and become positive forces in society, he wrote recently in the New York Review of Books. "That finality also includes the risk that the state may put an actually innocent person to death."

Indeed, far too often individuals have been put on death row only to be exonerated after being proven innocent -- that's happened 138 times since 1973 -- or, worse, put to death with their guilt still in doubt.

This week, there was at least one piece of good news to report about the death penalty: nationwide, both the number of executions and the number of people being put on death row is declining. According to a report from the Death Penalty Information Center, 46 executions were carried out in the U.S. this year, representing a 12% drop from the previous year and a nearly 50% drop since 2000, while 114 people were added to death row -- a decline of more than 50% since a decade ago.

While this is a positive trend that will hopefully continue, the fight to end capital punishment entirely is still an uphill battle. The conservative colleagues of former Justice Stevens, currently in the majority, have consistently pushed lower courts to let death penalties be carried out without "unnecessary delay." And misinformation about capital punishment remains rampant among the American public.

As an AlterNet reader, you probably know some of the basic facts about capital punishment -- for instance, that it's ineffective at deterring crime, that it's a deeply racist institution, and that it's costing taxpayers millions upon millions of unnecessary dollars. But here are some of the more surprising, and unknown, facts about the death penalty that shed light on the country's shifting attitudes toward capital punishment.

1. Texas, of all places, could see the death penalty ruled unconstitutional. The Lone Star State has earned a reputation over the years for being unapologetically execution-happy, but, believe it or not, a hearing was started earlier this month to examine the constitutionality of the death penalty in the state. Amid recent revelations of faulty evidence in two Texas death penalty cases, a team of lawyers went before a judge to argue that the risk of wrongful execution is great enough to render the practice unconstitutional. The hearing, which was expected to last two weeks, was brought to a halt indefinitely after just one day at the request of the prosecutors. But defense attorneys are working hard to revive the hearing, so all hope is not yet lost. In the words of the vice president, the defense's success would be a big f***ing deal.

2. Executions are actually declining in Texas, while in California they're on the rise.
Again, Texas surprises by issuing just 8 death sentences in 2010 -- 70% less than in 2003 and the lowest number since the death penalty was legalized in the 1970s. That number is still too high, of course, but it's a remarkably progressive trend for the state, especially when you compare it to California, a supposedly liberal state that nonetheless sentenced 29 people to death this year. In Texas, the number of death penalties handed out has been on the decline since a life sentence with absolutely no possibility of parole became an option in 2005.

3. The American public is increasingly ambivalent about the death penalty.
Americans have a reputation for being pro-capital punishment, but there's mounting evidence that the tide is turning. Recent polls show that U.S. support for the death penalty remains high, with as much as 83% of the public professing to be in favor of the practice. But at the same time, Americans are becoming far more open to alternatives to capital punishment -- especially life without the possibility of parole. When presented with that alternative, one poll found that support for the death penalty fell from 64% to 49%. It's a start.

4. Even after all these years, lethal injection remains an imperfect science that is often cruel and inhumane.You'd think that after hundreds of executions having been carried out over dozens of years, someone would have perfected the process of lethal injection, which has been the most common method of execution for some time now. Not so. You don't have to look hard to find story after story of doctors and scientists calling various lethal injection "cocktails" inhumane. A 2007 study the journal PLoS Medicine found that the standard lethal injection dose is "one-size-fits-all," not taking into account individuals' body size, which can cause slow and painful deaths. And just this month, an animal sedative never before given to a human was used in the execution of an Oklahoma man, effectively making him a human guinea pig.

5. Just 10% of U.S. counties account for all of the death sentences imposed in recent years. The vast majority of counties in the U.S. -- 90% of them, in fact -- did not impose a single death sentence over the past six years. From 2007-2009, only about 5% of counties were responsible for all of the country's death penalties. As the website Second Class Justice demonstrates, the geography of this is startling; if you look at a map showing where death sentences are handed out, you see that there's a "death belt" in the United States, the same way there's a tornado belt. And within that "death belt," there are just a few large red dots, representing the small handful of counties that seem to be execution wild. See for yourself here.

Lauren Kelley is an associate editor at AlterNet and a freelance writer and editor who has contributed to, The L Magazine and Time Out New York. She lives in Brooklyn. Follow her on Twitter here.