South Carolina has gone more than two years without an execution. That’s a streak worth celebrating – and perpetuating.
For the second year in a row, the state saw no executions and no new death sentences in 2013. South Carolina’s last execution occurred in May 2011, when 36-year-old Jeffrey Motts, already serving a life sentence for a 1995 double murder, was put to death for strangling his cellmate.
Fewer and fewer people are being executed nationwide as well. Last year, 39 inmates were put to death in nine states, a drop of 10 percent from the previous year.
This is not simply the result of fewer murders, the crime most likely to draw a death sentence. The drop also reflects a growing reluctance by prosecutors to seek the death penalty and a similar reluctance on the part of states to carry the sentence out.
Some might assume that capital punishment is uniformly enforced nationwide. In reality, several states never had capital punishment and others have abolished it.
In all, 18 states and the District of Columbia currently don’t have an enforceable death penalty statute. Maryland lawmakers passed a bill repealing capital punishment last year.
We can sympathize to an extent with the belief that some crimes are so heinous that execution seems the only appropriate punishment. At another level, though, meeting barbarism with more barbarism seems counterproductive to the goal of deterring violence.
And beyond the question of appropriateness, the death penalty is inefficiently and often unfairly administered. Even if we aren’t squeamish about executing murderers, we should be worried about executing innocent people, an irreversible act.
With better forensics and the use of DNA samples, the discovery of innocent people sitting on death row has become disturbingly frequent. Well-meaning juries, doing their best to weigh the available evidence, have sentenced a surprising number of people to death for crimes they didn’t commit.
Since 1973, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, more than 140 people have been released from death rows in 26 states because they were found to have been wrongly convicted.
Americans also should be concerned about the racial disparity in who gets sentenced to death. Statistics show that defendants are far more likely to end up on death row if they are African-American, if their victims are white and if they are poor and uneducated.
And capital punishment is expensive, far more so than incarceration. It squanders the time and energy of courts, prosecutors, defense attorneys, juries, and courtroom and law enforcement personnel.
The money spent on convicting defendants of capital crimes and on the inevitable appeals cases could be better used in other law enforcement efforts.
We don’t expect a uproar from South Carolina lawmakers for repealing the death penalty. While support for capital punishment nationwide has fallen to its lowest level in 40 years, 60 percent of Americans still favor the option of the death penalty for convicted murderers.
But inertia could do what anti-capital-punishment crusaders can’t. If prosecutors are unmotivated by either personal ambition, public outcries or perceived duty to pursue death penalties, they are unlikely to do so.
South Carolina has gone two years without an execution. Let’s make it three years in a row.