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Death Penalty may be on life support

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Judging from the events of 2006, America may be getting ready to pull the plug on ritual, state-sponsored killing.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center's 2006 year-end report, the number of death-penalty executions nationwide dropped for the sixth straight year. Death-row populations continued a similar six-year decline, and the number of death sentences issued dropped this year to a 30-year low. Even in Texas, the capital of capital punishment, death sentences have declined by nearly two-thirds in the past 10 years.

Of course, Texas is still No. 1 in actual executions, having killed 24 people last year -- nearly half the national total. But before you smirk at Texas, consider that Pennsylvania, the blue state with the blood-red center, is No. 4 in the number of death-row inmates: We have 228 convicts awaiting execution, to New York's one. Pennsylvania and Texas also share the distinction of having the largest percentage of minorities in their death houses: In both states, roughly seven out every 10 death-row inmates are non-white.

Even so, Pennsylvania hasn't executed anyone since 1999. In fact, Pennsylvania has executed only three people since 1973, and all of them wanted to die. (Those three were the only people executed anywhere in the Northeast over the past 30 years.) Over the same period of time, six Pennsylvanians on death row have been exonerated and released.

The overwhelming percentage of death-row inmates in Pennsylvania can't afford to hire their own lawyers, and Pennsylvania does not offer any post-conviction assistance to the condemned. Given this, it is incredible that indigent convicts have been twice as successful at proving themselves innocent as government lawyers have been at executing them. (If you think that proving yourself innocent is easy, I suggest you call the people down at the Innocence Project at Point Park University. They'll straighten you out.)

Gallup polls continue to indicate that two-thirds of Americans favor the death penalty for murder, but a Gallup poll taken this year suggests that support is waning. When offered the choice, people chose life without parole over death as the proper sentence for murder by 48 percent to 47 percent -- a statistical dead heat.

Perhaps what's souring people is the great difficulty the government has in administering the death penalty. The average time it takes to execute someone in the United States is 10 years, three months. Pennsylvania's longest-serving death-row resident, Leslie Beasley, was sentenced in 1981 -- and one of his victims was a cop.

Or perhaps the death penalty no longer seems fair. It is imposed and carried out arbitrarily and capriciously, with some convicts given extensive hearings and reviews, while others are executed quickly. Geography, the race of perpetrators, the race of victims, socio-economic class ... all have been shown to have an effect on the imposition of the death penalty.

This month, two states that execute by lethal injection halted executions. In California, federal judge Jeremy Fogel put a statewide hold on executions, citing a "persuasive lack of professionalism" in implementation and declaring the state's lethal-injection process "broken." After four days of hearings, the judge ruled that the first drug of the three-drug cocktail administered in lethal injection did not render the prisoner sufficiently unconscious to prevent unconstitutionally cruel pain and suffering when he received the second and third drugs, which cause paralysis and death.

In Florida, where they switched to lethal injection after a prisoner's head caught fire in the electric chair, Gov. Jeb Bush suspended all executions after the most recent lethal injection was botched Dec. 13. On the first attempt to execute Angel Nieves Diaz, the needle passed through the vein and lodged in the tissue beneath: Diaz was subjected to a 34-minute ordeal and successfully killed only after he was given a second injection.

Or maybe the death penalty is in decline because more people have come to believe, as I do, that execution is only the second-worst sentence -- after life in prison with no hope of release. Whatever the reason or combination of reasons, I predict that the U.S. will someday join the ranks of the other Western democracies in abolishing the death penalty.

Maybe it will even happen in my lifetime.

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