Death Penalty: Older but Not Wiser

New report looks back at 35 years of the death penalty

Death Penalty: Older but Not Wiser

Thirty-five years after the death penalty was reinstated by the nation's highest court, it remains a punishment inflicted as arbitrarily as a lightning strike, according to a new report commemorating the infamous anniversary from the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.

The U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty on July 2, 1976; it had previously ruled the ultimate punishment unconstitutional because of its arbitrary and unpredictable application, writes Rich­ard Dieter, the DPIC's executive director. Unfortunately, all these years later, he argues, that is still true. In sum, he writes, the "experiment" of capital punishment has failed. Indeed, the report notes, the system discerning who receives the death penalty and who doesn't – and for what crimes – appears worse than random. For example, Texas – still by far the national leader in executions, with 470 under its belt since reinstatement – executed Michael Richard in 2007 despite evidence of his mental impairment; meanwhile, in Washington, the so-called "Green River Killer," Gary Ridg­way, was spared death after confessing to murdering 48 people. Most notorious in Texas, perhaps, is the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, executed for an arson murder that many experts now say was likely a tragic accident; on the other hand, Ernest Willis – also convicted and sentenced to death for an arson murder that the state later decided was likely an accident – was spared death and ultimately exonerated.

"A review of state death penalty practices exposes a system in which an unpredictable few cases result in executions from among thousands of eligible cases. Race, geography and the size of a county's budget play a major role in who receives the ultimate punishment," reads the report. "In such a haphazard process, the rationales of deterrence and retribution make little sense." The entire report is available at

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death penalty, Michael Richard, Cameron Todd Willingham, Ernest Willis

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