Steve Chapman
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In the midst of the fall election campaign, Steven Hayes went on trial in New Haven, Conn., in one of the most horrific murder cases in memory. The killers invaded a home, beat a man with a baseball bat, sexually assaulted and strangled his wife and tied up their two daughters before setting a fire that killed them.

It was the sort of crime that could only increase support for the death penalty. This effect had some relevance for the Connecticut governor's race, because it pitted a supporter of capital punishment, Republican Thomas Foley, against Democrat Dannel Malloy, an opponent.

When they debated, Foley promised to veto any bill to abolish the death penalty, while Malloy said, "We know that the application of the death penalty has not always been equal and even." A tough sell, right? But Malloy won.

That's just one of the parade of indications that capital punishment is on the wane. The popular impulse to put people to death is just not what it used to be.

Executions have fallen by half since 1999. The number of new death sentences is about one-third what it was at the 1996 peak. Even in Texas, long the leading practitioner, death sentences are off by 80 percent. Several states that retain capital punishment have not administered a single lethal injection in the past five years.

The exoneration of 138 death row inmates has weakened public support for the ultimate sanction. In a recent Gallup poll, 64 percent of Americans endorsed it, down from 80 percent in 1994, while opposition has nearly doubled.

A survey commissioned by the Death Penalty Information Center found that 61 percent prefer that murderers get some sort of life sentence instead. As a budget priority, the death penalty was ranked seventh out of seven issues.

Did someone mention budgets? They are no friend of an option that requires expensive trials, costly appeals and pricey incarceration arrangements. Franklin Zimring, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, says capital punishment has become "an extreme luxury item."

Even the Neiman Marcus Christmas catalog, which this year offers a charm bracelet for $248,000, has nothing to compare. Maryland has spent $186 million on capital cases over the past 30 years -- which comes to $37 million per execution.

The typical Texas death case carries a price tag of $2.3 million. A 2005 study pointed out that "New Jersey taxpayers over the last 23 years have paid more than a quarter billion dollars on a capital punishment system that has executed no one."

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Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.
 

 
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