Progressive Victories: Death Sentences in Decline

The Houston Chronicle ran an important news story yesterday, which reported the encouraging news that "Death sentences are at the lowest point since the reinstatement of capital punishment in 1976," including states in "the venerable Southern 'death belt."

Even in Texas, home to the nation's busiest execution chamber and terra non grata for death-penalty opponents, the trend is pronounced. Since 1999, its yearly tally of the condemned has sunk from 48 to 23.

As eye-opening as those numbers may be, they are more dramatic elsewhere. North Carolina has dropped from 24 death sentences in 1999 to three last year. Florida, which once rivaled Texas in its taste for the death penalty, dipped from 25 in 1998 to eight in 2004.

The article runs through a few theories for the decline -- which has been national in scope -- and one in particular stood out: capital defendents are getting better representation in court.

Capital defense lawyers are better-trained and have more resources than in the past. States across the country, especially in the South, have been relentlessly criticized by death-penalty opponents, national media and sometimes federal judges for the quality of representation given to capital defendants. Numerous jurisdictions, both county and state, have responded with higher standards and more resources. Georgia, for instance, recently opened a statewide public defender program for death-penalty cases.

"The quality of defense lawyering is much better," said Stephen Bright, a nationally known Atlanta defense lawyer, author and death-penalty opponent. "Georgia went away from a system where local judges appointed local lawyers, and many of those lawyers were unqualified. Instead of just any local yokel who happens to have a bar card, it will now be somebody who has experience and is trained and knows how to investigate a case and put on mitigating evidence."

North Carolina also created a statewide indigent-defense system in 2001. The head of its capital section, Robert Hurley, said it is a big reason that death sentences are down there, along with a new state law that gave prosecutors more discretion in pursuing death sentences.

This is a clear case where relentless progressive advocacy has paid off, and has resulted in a more humane and fair justice system.