From assassinations to space missions, 1968 was a year of radical firsts in American history. But amid all the commemorative ruckus over the 50th anniversary of that seminal year, one of the most striking precedents it set has been largely forgotten: 1968 was the first year in the history of the United States in which not a single prisoner was executed. Today, the nation is edging closer to repeating that non-feat—but this time, the reasons are quite different.
Fifty years ago, moral objections were killing the death penalty. In a nation shaken by the racial injustices exposed by the civil rights movement, public support for capital punishment plunged. Pollsters reported that more Americans opposed the death penalty than supported it. Several states had banned the practice. Leaders from Robert Kennedy to local politicians called for its abolition; even the federal Attorney General, the nation’s top law-enforcement official, joined them. A Supreme Court justice wrote off death penalty advocates, in a 1968 ruling, as a “distinct and dwindling minority.” The annual number of executions had already dwindled into the single digits; that year, it hit zero.
Finally, the Supreme Court effectively banned capital punishment altogether in 1972. America had joined the overwhelming majority of Western nations which had long since stopped killing prisoners.
But it turned out the United States had only hit pause, not stop. In 1976, the Supreme Court reopened the door to capital punishment, and as crime rose throughout that decade and the next, executions came roaring back into vogue. By the 1990s, walloping majorities of Americans supported the death penalty. No serious politician could afford to stand against it. Courts doled out hundreds of death sentences every year. By the start of the new millennium, scores of prisoners were being executed each year, and thousands more waited on death row for their turn.
What happened? By the mid-1970s, much of middle America was deeply uneasy about how the very fabric of society seemed to be unraveling. Drug use and crime were rising; minorities, women and homosexuals were demanding more power and respect. And the mighty United States was humiliated, first in Vietnam and later by Iranian hostage-takers.
In this milieu, politicians increasingly learned that crime could pay -- for them. From federal candidates to county sheriffs, would-be officeholders began vying to out-tough each other on law-and-order issues. One result was the extension of the death penalty to dozens of new crimes, along with cutbacks on appeals and other protections for capital defendants.
Today, however, Americans are once again losing their appetite for the ultimate sanction. The most recent Gallup poll, taken in October, found that popular support for capital punishment has plunged to 55 per cent. That’s still a majority, but the smallest one since 1972. And even though most Americans are okay with executions in the abstract, they are increasingly squeamish about actually carrying them out. In 1999, America put 98 convicts to death; last year’s total was 23. The number of death sentences has fallen even more dramatically, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, from 277 to 31. As the New York Times reports, even in Texas’ Harris County, “the nation’s undisputed leader in state-sanctioned killing, the year passed without a single execution or death sentence — the first time that’s happened in more than 40 years.”
The issue now is to a great extent a practical one: Many Americans have lost faith in the criminal justice system’s ability to separate the innocent from the guilty. That's largely because of the more than 155 men and women who have been freed from death row in recent years, thanks to DNA testing and other advances. That shocking proof of the system's fallibility has made juries, judges, prosecutors and politicians much more wary about pushing for the ultimate punishment.
Even among Republicans, traditional champions of capital punishment, support is crumbling. An October report by a group called Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty found that dozens of Republican state lawmakers signed on to death penalty repeal bills in 2016 and 2017—far more than in previous years. “Plagued by wrongful convictions, high costs, and delays, the death penalty has proven to be ineffective and incompatible with a number of core conservative principles,” explain the study’s authors.
What all this tells us is that despite how it has endured for these many centuries, capital punishment is not necessarily a permanent fixture of American justice. Worldwide, according to Amnesty International, 141 countries have by now stopped using the death penalty. We briefly joined them in 1968. On the 50th anniversary of that first execution-free year, we are within sight of becoming, once again, an execution-free nation.