The death penalty seems to be slowly but surely on its way out in the US, the only big democracy in the West that still permits it, as Americans increasingly voice their opposition. Its demise could now be coming even quicker, thanks in part to a growing group of the very officials responsible for seeking executions.
In recent elections, local district attorney races have suddenly become more competitive, fueled by an influx of outside cash. In several US counties, election of reform-minded prosecutors skeptical or downright opposed to capital punishment represents a payoff on a bet made by George Soros, the liberal billionaire investor.
Soros identified local US prosecutorial elections as a crucial way to instigate criminal-justice reform. The US has been repeatedly criticized by international human rights organizations and the United Nations for use of the death penalty and for its ballooning mass incarceration. The Hungarian-born Soros, who has donated millions to support democracy and free expression in Eastern Europe and around the world, spent nearly $10 million in local law enforcement races in 10 states, backing the winners in most.
“The single most important determinant of whether a death sentence is going to be returned in a given case has nothing to do with how bad the murder is—it has to do with who the prosecutor is,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center of Washington, DC, a research group.
In 2016, there were fewer new death sentences than at any other time since the 1970s, when capital punishment was reinstated in the US. The number of executions was the lowest it has been in more than two decades. Much of the move away from capital punishment has been inspired by the increasing ranks of US voters who oppose executions. But it also faces an obstacle: other elected officials—outside of the prosecutor ranks—who are eager to be seen as tough on crime, especially in particularly high-profile, politically charged cases.
Showdown down south
That dynamic is under the spotlight in Florida, where Aramis Ayala, newly elected prosecutor for Orange and Osceola counties in Florida, said March 16 she won’t ever seek the death penalty, provoking outrage from other law enforcement leaders. She said capital punishment is not an effective deterrent, is too costly, and does not provide true justice for victims’ families. Her decision means she will not call for the execution of Markeith Loyd, accused of murdering his pregnant ex-girlfriend and killing a police officer who tried to arrest him.
Orlando police chief John Mina said he was “furious” with the decision, and the state’s prosecutors’ association emphasized that other Florida prosecutors would continue to seek the death penalty. More dramatically, Florida governor Rick Scott took her off the case and appointed a special prosecutor to take charge of Loyd’s case. Ayala filed a motion challenging Scott’s authority to remove her. . .