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OUR VIEW: Alabama this year went against the national trend of fewer executions, even thought the state's system of capital punishment leaves much to be desired

OUR VIEW: Alabama this year went against the national trend of fewer executions, even though the state's system of capital punishment leaves much to be desired
Published: Tuesday, December 27, 2011, 5:45 AM
 By Birmingham News editorial board The Birmingham News

Bucking a national trend rarely lands Alabama's elected officials in trouble with the electorate. In fact, many claim not being like New York, or California, or Texas, or any other state, as a badge of honor.

We suspect that is also the case with our state's latest trend-bucking: While the number of executions across the nation declined this year compared to 2010, Alabama's rose, according to the Death Penalty Information Center's year-end report issued this month. Nationally, states executed 43 Death Row inmates, down from 46 in 2010. Alabama, on the other hand, executed five Death Row inmates in 2010, but six this year. Executions have declined 57 percent nationally since 1999, the DPIC reported.

The trend toward states moving away from the death penalty continued this year, with Illinois becoming the fourth state in four years to abandon capital punishment and the Oregon governor declaring a moratorium on all executions. Only 13 states executed Death Row inmates in 2011.

Also, just 78 people convicted of murder received death sentences in 2011, the first time in 35 years there have been fewer than 100 death sentences, according to the DPIC. The report did not provide state-by-state figures for death sentences.

Fear of executing the innocent plus the option of locking away a murderer for the rest of his life without parole are driving the decrease in death sentences, according to Richard Dieter, the center's executive director and author of the report. That ultimately will lead to fewer inmates on states' Death Rows.

Polling indicates public sentiment is moving away from support of the death penalty. Support for the death penalty is 61 percent nationally, the lowest level of support in almost 40 years, according to the 2011 Gallup Poll.

For those of us who oppose capital punishment, 2011 has been a promising year in many ways nationally. In Alabama? Not so much.

Our state's execution pace continues unabated, Gov. Robert Bentley has shown no less inclination for allowing executions than his predecessor, Bob Riley, and the Legislature continues to do nothing about a system of capital punishment that is fraught with error, haphazard, unfair and risks putting to death an innocent person. (Since 1993, five inmates have earned their freedom from Alabama's Death Row; nationally, the DPIC cites 139 Death Row exonerations since 1973.)

The DPIC report highlighted a January execution in Alabama that should have given Riley, the Legislature and Alabamians great pause. Here is the report's excerpt: "Before trial, prosecutors offered Leroy White a plea bargain to life without parole, but White's trial lawyer misunderstood the law and incorrectly told White he could not be convicted of capital murder. The jury in White's case then recommended a life sentence, but Alabama is one of the few states that allow the judge to override the jury, and White was sentenced to death. One of White's appellate attorneys, who practiced corporate law and had never argued in a courtroom, withdrew from the case without telling him and later admitted he caused his client to miss a critical appeal deadline, thereby shortening the appeals process and expediting his execution."

White was convicted of shooting and killing his wife while he held his 17-month-old daughter in one of his arms. His daughter, incidentally, as well as his wife's family, had asked that White's life be spared.

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.

Bucking the national trend on capital punishment may be a political winner for Alabama's elected officials. But they should worry about the consequences of continuing to put people to death with such a dangerous death penalty system.

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