Death penalty’s use dwindles in Indiana

Indianapolis — Longtime public defender Paula Sites once devoted a significant part of her work to training lawyers to represent clients facing execution.

She offered sessions each year in her role as assistant executive director at Indiana Public Defender Council.

Now, she does offers the sessions every two years — the minimum required by the state. With so few death penalty cases, she said, there’s no need to have them more often.

“We’ve been steadily stopping the use of the death penalty,” she said.

Executions were back in the national news this week when the U.S. Supreme Court, ruling in an Oklahoma case, upheld the use of a controversial drug blamed for several botched executions.

It barely added to the din of news here in Indiana.

Sites said she thinks that’s not just because Indiana uses a different combination of drugs to execute condemned prisoners. It’s that the death penalty is fading from people’s minds and memories.

The last execution by the state was in 2009. The last execution by the federal government at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute was 2003.

There’s no scheduled execution for any of the 61 federal death-row inmates. Nor for the dozen men on death row at the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City, or for the sole woman under an Indiana death sentence who is incarcerated in an Ohio prison on a separate murder conviction.

Twenty people have been executed by Indiana since 1977, when the state restored the death penalty.

Almost triple that number — 57 people — received death-sentences that were later reduced or whose convictions were overturned.

There’s still plenty of murder and mayhem in Indiana. The state has logged more than 4,700 homicides since 2001. But fewer than two-dozen capital cases went to trial. Several were filed last year, though Sites sees that as an anomaly given a 15-year trend that included years with no capital cases.

The state’s death penalty “can rear its head from time to time,” as long as it’s on the books, she said.

“But it’s still really unusual for prosecutors to file a capital case,” she said.

In the last legislative session, the General Assembly moved to make capital punishment more available to prosecutors. Lawmakers added two elements to a list of crimes eligible for the death penalty — lethal campus shootings and beheadings.

But that likely won’t significantly reverse the trend, Sites said. Too many other factors are involved.

Cost is one of them.

The Indiana Legislative Services Agency — the General Assembly’s nonpartisan research arm — calculates the average cost to taxpayers of a murder case resulting in a sentence of life without parole is $42,000. A murder case with the death sentence costs more than 10 times as much — usually due to years of legal appeals before the penalty is carried out.

In a passionate dissent in last week’s narrow Supreme Court ruling, Justice Steven Breyer said those long years of legal limbo undermine the deterrent effect of the death penalty. He also took note of the 100-plus death row inmates who’ve been exonerated, along with arbitrary imposition of the death penalty from state to state.

Maureen Hayden is statehouse bureau chief for CNHI newspapers. Send comments to