You might surmise that death sentences and executions have subsided because the homicide rate has dropped so much. But Zimring finds that the biggest decline has been among murders that aren't eligible for capital punishment. Capital murders have declined far less. There are thousands each year for prosecutors who want to pursue them.
Even among lawmakers, this remedy is losing ground. The New Jersey legislature repealed it in 2007 and New Mexico followed suit last year. New York's death penalty law was overturned in court, but legislators have refused to pass a new one.
Illinois Gov. George Ryan declared an execution moratorium in 2000, and his two successors have maintained it. But the moratorium has been, in a sense, the worst of both worlds. While taxpayers continue to incur the costs of seeking death sentences, none is ever carried out.
The cost will disappear if the General Assembly abolishes capital punishment, which opponents intend to propose as soon as it convenes in January. "I really think we're going to get it done," Jim Covington, director of legislative affairs for the Illinois State Bar Association, told me.
That shouldn't be impossible in a state where death row inmates are more likely to be exonerated than executed. Given Illinois' horrendous budget problems, the point of keeping the death penalty on the books is mysterious to see. In the last seven years, taxpayers have spent more than $100 million on capital cases even though the death chamber has been turned into a Starbucks.
If it is repealed, some people will cheer, some will be angry, and most will pay little attention. In the United States, the death penalty may never die, but its best days are past.