Rethinking Death

Several states are scaling back on capital crimes death

by: Mark Mazzetti

T HE TELEVISION TRUCKS HAVE LEFT TERRE HAUTE. The news media inhabitants of “Camp Death” dispersed not long after Timothy McVeigh drew his last breath, an anticlimactic end to the months of buildup devoted to the unrepentant killer. Yet the spotlight on a single execution obscured a larger picture: Dozens of states are now taking a harder look at their own death penalty systems. This year, 37 of the 38 states with the death penalty have considered legislation to reform how they mete out capital punishment. Illinois is the only one with a temporary moratorium on executions, yet opponents of the death penalty are heartened by increased attention to the issue, which they believe is causing politicians to respond.

DNA tests. In the past 18 months, 14 states have passed laws granting death row inmates access to DNA testing that might exonerate them . One of those states is Texas, which has carried out more than a third of all executions since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. Over the past five months, the Texas Legislature has debated a slate of death penalty reforms, passing into law a DNA bill and a measure to improve legal representation for poor defendants. Supporters of reforms say Texas lawmakers were shamed into acting after the state was skewered in the national and international media during the 2000 presidential campaign for its wide use of the death penalty while George W. Bush was governor. “A lot of us became embarrassed about the state’s reputation for being blood thirsty,” says Texas Sen. Rodney Ellis, who sponsored the measures.

Last week, Texas Gov. Rick Perry was set to veto a bill banning the execution of mentally retarded inmates, yet other states have passed laws to end the practice. On June 12, 2001, Gov. Jeb Bush made Florida the 15th state to impose a ban, and Connecticut and Missouri are expected to follow suit. Political momentum may not matter, however, as the Supreme Court will decide in the next term whether executing the mentally retarded violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The high court in 1989 ruled it was not unconstitutional, in part because there was no “national consensus” against such executions. At the time, only two states prohibited the practice. This year, with 15 and counting, the court may have a different opinion.

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