OXFORD – Last week on the day after Mississippi executed Rodney Gray, only one person had posted a comment in response to the brief account appearing on WLBT’s website. “Good” is all it said.
There’s been a lot of other news – flood, redistricting and flood, flood, flood – competing for the public’s attention. Still, there’s no denying that the press and the public are not nearly as rapt about executions as in the not-too-distant past.
The Clarion-Ledger’s story about Gray was 250 words. Its story about the execution of Benny Joe Stevens a week earlier was a mere 180 words (about the length of this column so far). No photo of a hearse pulling away. No photos of people waving signs, for or against. Only a hand-out mugshot from the Mississippi Department of Corrections, small headline, brief copy.
So, this raises a few questions.
Are people not committing heinous crimes?
Well, Gray and Stevens certainly did.
Twelve years ago, when he was 40, Stevens murdered his ex-wife, her husband and two children, 11 and 10.
Fifteen years ago, Gray – who never admitted guilt – was convicted of kidnapping, robbing, raping and murdering a 79-year-old woman when he was 21 years old.
Overall, Mississippi’s homicide rate was higher in the 1990s than in the first decade of this century, but it is still well above the national average.
Has the law changed?
The U.S. Supreme Court has in recent years issued a few significant rulings – one saying people can’t be executed for crimes committed as children and another saying people of diminished mental capacity can’t be sent to the death chamber.
I’ve written about this before and in more detail, but the gist is this: District attorneys around Mississippi are the key decision-makers on whether to seek indictments that could result in executions. One capital case can bust a county court budget for years. Boards of supervisors have plenty of demand for county tax dollars without the DA appearing at their door to ask for $500,000 to $1 million to prosecute a death penalty case and provide a defendant with competent representation.
Has the novelty – news value – worn off?
Usually an event is newsworthy until it starts happening a lot. But executions are not happening a lot. The news value is declining, but it can’t be attributed to the frequency at which the death chamber at the state penitentiary at Parchman is being occupied.
In Mississippi, there have been two executions this year. One more is scheduled. There were three in 2010 and none in 2009. Overall in the state there have been 15 executions since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976 after a four-year moratorium. That averages to one every other year – which means they’re still pretty rare.
This much can be said: Though 57 people, including two women, remain on Death Row in Mississippi, this state is following national trends: Fewer people are being sentenced to die for their crimes and, overall, fewer are being executed.
When they are asked to impose the ultimate sanction, jurors appear more reluctant to do so.
Amnesty International reports that from a peak of about 320 death sentences per year in the United States in the mid 1990s, there has been a precipitous fall to about 100 death sentences per year for the past several years.
In Texas, the statistical leader, 40 people were executed in 2000. In 2009, 24 were given lethal injections, then 17 last year and only two so far this year.
Also, not so much in Mississippi, but elsewhere, commutations are on the increase. While 16 people have been executed in America this year, another 11 have been moved off death row, if not to freedom then to life sentences with or without parole.
Outright abolition of death sentences is increasing around the world with 139 countries not imposing or carrying out executions. About 16 states no longer have a death penalty or have a moratorium in effect.
For whatever reason – or whatever combination of reasons – the public (and the press that ostensibly mirrors our world) is just not as interested in sentencing people to death or in having sentences meted out for those who are condemned.
Conclusion: The death penalty may be dying of natural causes.
One person’s reaction: “Good.”
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1,University, MS 38677, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.