New reports show that death sentences across the nation dropped dramatically in 2011. Executions also continued to decline. And in many states there is a growing discomfort with the death penalty as evidence continues to emerge about its high cost and unreliable imposition. Alabama, in contrast, continues to impose death sentences and carry out executions at a high rate.
Nationally, death sentences continued their sharp decline since the 1990s. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, there were only 78 new death sentences in the country in 2011, falling below one hundred for the first time in the modern era of capital punishment. This is the lowest number of death sentences in any year since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.
Executions also decreased nationally in 2011. There were 43 in the country, a decline of over fifty percent since 1999, when there were 98. Only thirteen states had any executions in 2011.
In addition to the decline in death sentences and executions nationally, Illinois abolished the death penalty in 2011, the governor of Oregon declared a moratorium on all executions, and a ballot initiative to end the death penalty began in California.
In stark contrast to the national trend and despite fewer safeguards permitting review of death cases and the declining availability of lawyers to assist condemned prisoners, Alabama sentenced nine people to death in 2011. This accounted for more than ten percent of new death sentences in the entire country. Similarly, Alabama’s six executions accounted for more than ten percent of all executions nationwide. And it continues to have, by a substantial margin, the nation's largest per capita death row population.
One of the men Alabama executed this year was Leroy White. He was executed over strong opposition from the family of the crime victim and in spite of the jury's verdict sentencing him to life imprisonment without parole. Alabama is the only state in the country that allows elected judges to override jury life verdicts without any meaningful restrictions. The trial prosecutor also joined the call for clemency. Mr. White's case was never reviewed by a federal appellate court because his lawyers abandoned him without filing his appeal.
Commentators have criticized Alabama's use of the death penalty. With respect to Leroy White's case, the Birmingham News said, "With better lawyers representing him, White would be alive today. If Alabama weren't the only one of 34 states with the death penalty where judges regularly override juries, White would be alive today. Such arbitrary factors shouldn't decide who lives and who dies in a system that is supposed to apply the death penalty fairly and impartially."