Blog of Rights

Cheers to Life

By Anna Arceneaux, Staff Attorney, ACLU Capital Punishment Project at 2:13pm

For me, the new year is an occasion to reflect on the triumphs and disappointments of the year past, to renew my goals and commitments, and to resolve again to face the new challenges and opportunities in the year ahead. This New Year's Eve, I am toasting to life.

In North Carolina, where our office is based, death sentences dropped dramatically in 2008: only one man was sent to death row as juries across the state resoundingly voted in favor of life sentences. Not one person was executed. Two innocent men left North Carolina's death row and stepped on free soil, including our client Bo Jones. For the first time in over 16 years, Bo spent the holiday season at home with his family.

Other death penalty states saw similar declines in death sentences and executions. Across the country, only some 112 defendants were sentenced to death, down dramatically from the average of about 300 seen in the 1990s. In Harris County, Texas, traditionally labeled "the capital of capital punishment," not one person was sentenced to death. Additionally, 2008 saw the lowest number (37) of executions in 14 years, only one of which occurred outside the South. The Supreme Court refused to find that Kentucky's method of lethal injection constituted cruel and unusual punishment, but in the same term, it rejected the death penalty for non-homicide crimes.

States across the country are acknowledging the exorbitant costs of administering the death penalty, especially in times of perilous budget shortfalls. New Jersey, just over a year into its abolition of the death penalty, seems to have no regrets. Doctors across the country — and just last week in Washington — are renewing their commitment to the Hippocratic Oath and refusing to play any part in ending a life. It is my wish for 2009 that we continue to witness these hopeful trends and see justice for all those under sentence of death.

Today, I toast all of the steadfast advocates, in the field of capital punishment and beyond, who have fought, often in the face of great personal, professional, and public adversity, for the lives and rights of society's most vulnerable members, whom so many would cast aside. I reflect on all those who have lost their loved ones to homicide and execution and hope that this new year will bring them peace. And I celebrate all of the lives saved in 2008; for those on death row as well as for those facing the death penalty, every new day is a victory.

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