Flurry of abolition bills in the US

5 avril 2013

The ink has not yet dried on new legislation making Maryland the 18th US State to abolish the death penalty, and three others are considering repeal bills. Recent failures to end capital punishment in Montana and California have opened new avenues.

See also our interview with Richard Dieter (Death Penalty Information Center) and a profile of former death row prisoner Kirk Bloodsworth (Witness to Innocence)

The legislature of the East Coast State adopted a bill abolishing the death penalty and directing savings towards support for families of homicide victims on March 15. The signature of Governor Martin O’Malley, who supported the bill, is expected any day to turn it into law. O’Malley said he would review the fate of the five prisoners currently on death row in Maryland on a case-by-case basis.
The cost of capital cases, the racial bias in the administration of the death penalty, its inefficiency in deterring crime and above all the risk of executing innocent people have been key arguments in the Maryland repeal campaign. Kirk Bloodsworth, the first US death row inmate exonerated thanks to DNA evidence, was sentenced in Maryland and his story changed the minds of many state delegates and senators.

Hours after cheering the Maryland abolition vote in Annapolis, Bloodsworth hopped to the neighbouring state of Delaware to testify in parliament there. An abolition bill was introduced on March 12 and it cleared a Senate committee the next week. It is now ready for a full parliamentary debate. The bill includes the commutation of death sentences for 17 people currently on death row in Delaware.

On March 19, eight of the nine lawmakers on Nebraska legislature’s judiciary committee approved a bill replacing the death penalty with a life sentence without the option of parole. One abstained. A full parliamentary debate can now start. A previous abolition bill failed last year, but many seats have changed hands in elections since then.

An abolition bill was defeated in the Colorado legislature on March 26. During preliminary discussions, abolitionists argued that the cost of capital cases was astronomical and that they disproportionately targeted black defendants. However, the debate turned emotional when one House delegate whose son was murdered opposed the bill.

A parliamentary committee rejected a repeal bill on February 22 by 11 votes against nine. Yet that new attempt to abolish the death penalty in Montana showed increasing support for the repeal across party lines: the bill was introduced by a bi-partisan group, and the voice of a new group called Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty emerged in the debate. They argue that the death penalty is unacceptable from a conservative point of view because it represents an exorbitant power of government over individuals.

Since their narrow defeat in last November’s repeal referendum, Californian abolitionists have been preparing for the next challenge. They will support upcoming legislative proposals to reduce the scope of the death penalty, and they are in talks with groups such as the Democratic Party and the trade unions to consolidate support for the next vote. “We must build stronger links with them so that when we go again, we know where the 250,000 votes we missed the first time will come from,” says SAFE California campaign manager Natasha Minsker, who will attend the 5th World Congress Against the Death Penalty to share lessons learned from her action with international activists.

Thomas Hubert