Nationwide support for the death penalty has waned since 2003, though most Americans still regard it as a just punishment.
The results of a Harris Interactive poll published in March indicate a majority of Americans think the death penalty poses no deterrent to crime, and innocent people have sometimes been convicted of murder. However, the poll shows most do not favor a decrease in the number of executions.
Michael Miller, minister for United Campus Ministry-Wesley, said he opposes capital punishment on moral grounds. Miller, history lecturer, said people should be against the death penalty because an innocent person could be put to death and it is used disproportionately against poor and uneducated individuals.
"I think it's appropriate to punish people; I think it's even more than appropriate to rehabilitate people," Miller said. "Clearly there are people who are so antisocial, so broken, so dangerous, they have to be kept from the mainstream of society. But I don't see anything in the teachings of Jesus that justifies the death penalty."
Texas led the nation in executions with 26 last year, twice as many as all other states combined. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 405 people have been put to death in Texas since 1976. Virginia comes in second with 98 executions.
Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said capital punishment is more costly to taxpayers than other sentencing options. Dieter did not take a stand for or against the death penalty, but said if the people want it they ought to implement it justly.
"To do it right you need higher paid lawyers, better qualified lawyers, full appeals, experts allowed, DNA testing, psychiatric experts, mental retardation experts, et cetera - it is expensive," Dieter said.
He said attempts at low cost implementations of the death penalty fail because such cases are likely to be overturned on constitutional grounds and result in new trials.
According to a Death Penalty Information Center fact sheet, an average of five people were released from death row each year from 2000 to 2007 because of evidence of their innocence. The fact sheet cites studies indicating the odds of receiving a death sentence in North Carolina can rise by three and a half times among offenders whose victims are white.
A California study found people convicted for killing whites are about three times more likely to receive a death sentence than those who murdered blacks. Those convicted for murdering Latinos are four times less likely to receive the death penalty than if he or she murdered a white person.
According to the fact sheet, 41 percent of Texas death row inmates in 2006 were black. Black people comprise 12 percent of the state's population.
"That's the problem with the death penalty. It tends to value lives differently based on a whole bunch of factors that have nothing to do with the crime," Dieter said. "All dead people are not equal in the eyes of the death penalty."
According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Web site, Harris County leads all other counties with 120 death row inmates and Dallas County comes in second with 46.
District Attorney Sherri Tibbe said there are no death row inmates in Hays County, but she has one pending capital murder case. Tibbe said she has not called for the death penalty during her tenure. She declined to comment directly about whether or not her office would seek the death penalty in any case.
"It's the law in the state of Texas - the death penalty is an option," Tibbe said. "It's always something you would consider as a prosecutor ... You do have the discretion, but you always consider the full range of punishments - the death penalty or life without parole when yo're looking at a capital murder case. You make the decision on a case-by-case basis."
Dieter said because death penalty cases are expensive to pursue, district attorneys in counties with small budgets do not tend to ask for the punishment. He said the death penalty has more to do with politics than criminal justice. Dieter said some district attorneys, as elected officials, pursue the death penalty because it may help their political careers and make them appear tough on crime.
"The criminal justice system tends to say, 'you commit a certain crime, you get a certain punishment, and that's what we think is the proper punishment for a lot of reasons,'" Dieter said. "The death penalty doesn't work like that. It's very selective and symbolic. It's not punishment for murder. It's not even for the worst murders. The worst murderers typically don't even get the death penalty because they usually have good lawyers. So you have to wonder what purpose it is serving, and I think the political purpose is one of the chief ones."
Miller said he presided over the funeral of a woman who was murdered. Miller said he found it difficult to believe the victim's family would be able to soon forgive her murderer. He said restorative justice, the idea perpetrators can be reformed by contact with their victims or the victims of similar offenders, is not likely to be used on a large scale any time soon.
"I'm always amazed at the grace and the powerful faith of people who have had a loved one taken from them, yet who have had the spiritual maturity to forgive," Miller said. "For many people the loss of a loved one is so grievous and horrible and traumatic, it's hard to imagine people with that kind of soul. But they do exist. I've met some."
© 2008 The University Star via U-WIRE