As 2021 came to a close, editorial writers in four death penalty states called for legislative and executive action to end capital punishment or further limit its use.

Editorial boards for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and the Idaho Statesman took note that as the death penalty declines in usage and public support, it remains arbitrary and inhumane in its application and continues to place innocent lives at risk. Additionally, recently retired Los Angeles Times editorial board writer Scott Martelle penned a December op-ed calling for a new voter initiative to end California’s death penalty.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

In a December 21 editorial, 2021, entitled Executions dwindle as public support falls. End this barbarism, already., the Post-Dispatch editorial board criticized the administration of the death penalty as “random and unjust.” “[C]apital punishment is losing support across the political spectrum,” the editors said, “It’s past time to finish off the slow death of the death penalty.”

The board took on the tradition arguments advanced in defense of capital punishment: that it contributes to public safety and is reserved for the worst cases. “Even its proponents don’t generally push the debunked argument anymore that executions are a deterrent to murder; the data has never supported that argument,” the editors wrote. There also was “no indication” that the eleven prisoners executed in the Unites States in 2021 were “the worst of the worst murderers. Who ends up being killed by the government is more like a lottery, largely driven by random factors like the state in which the crime was committed, the luck of the draw regarding prosecutors, judges and jurors, the financial ability of the defendant to secure competent counsel — and, most disturbingly, race.”

The editors blasted the aberrant federal execution spree in which 13 prisoners were executed in the final six months of the Trump administration, calling the spree a manifestation of “[t]he twisted politics of the Trump era.” Those executions, the editors wrote, were carried out “not to serve the cause of justice but rather Trump’s ego.”

The board was also critical of President Biden, who had pledged to work to abolish the federal death penalty and incentivize states to do the same with their capital punishment statutes. “Biden has disappointingly failed to follow through on his campaign promise,” the editors said. “If political calculus has driven that decision,” they wrote, “he should redo the math and realize that it would be both good policy and good politics to end this barbaric practice.”

Pittsburg Post-Gazette

On December 23, the Pittsburg Post-Gazette called for the end of the death penalty in Pennsylvania. The editorial, It’s time to abolish the death penalty, opened: “Quietly and without fanfare, the death penalty in the United States is dying, a trend Pennsylvania should applaud and encourage by abolishing its death penalty statute.”

The editors traced the “waning” public support for the death penalty, reflected in the fewest executions since 1988, the abolition of capital punishment by 7 states in the past decade, and the moratoria on executions in three more death-penalty states. “In pausing executions, states have cited, among other things, egregious racial disparities and the failure of capital punishment to deter violent crime,” the editors wrote. “No credible evidence – none – shows the death penalty deters violent crime or achieves any social good.”

Pennsylvania reinstated the death penalty in 1974 and enacted a new death penalty statute in 1978 when the first law was struck down as unconstitutional. Under these statutes, the editors noted, “more than 400 people have been sentenced to death in Pennsylvania, at a cost of $1 billion.” From those sentences, the editorial board observed, Pennsylvania has carried out only three executions, while ten wrongly convicted Pennsylvania death-row prisoners have been exonerated.

These exonerations, and the more than 180 wrongly convicted death-row prisoners who have been exonerated nationwide, underscore “the real possibility of executing the innocent.”

Finding the moral and practical arguments against the death penalty to be “compelling,” the editors urged Pennsylvania’s legislature to take action. “When Gov. [Tom] Wolf leaves office in January 2023, his moratorium on executions expires.” The editors wrote. “To prevent more executions and excessive legal costs, Pennsylvania legislators should approve bipartisan bills to abolish the state’s death penalty law and move the nation closer to ending this barbaric, impractical and ineffective practice.”

Los Angeles Times

In his December 2 op-ed, California halted executions, now it should abolish the death penalty, in the Los Angeles Times, Scott Martelle wrote that in the five years since Proposition 66 — which was supposed to accelerate the appeals process in death penalty cases — passed, “nothing has really changed. … So much for the fix that death penalty advocates promised. Here’s a better one: End the death penalty in California once and for all.”

Martelle catalogues the flaws that have plagued the administration of capital punishment in California and across the country. “Capital punishment magnifies broader racial and class divides in the United States,” he writes. “Death sentences fall disproportionately on Black and Latino defendants, and on the poor. It’s no accident of history that former slave states cling stubbornly to this barbaric sentence. And capital punishment is applied inconsistently.”

Martelle’s op-ed also addresses the question of innocence. “A parade of death row exonerations nationwide has made more people aware of how susceptible the legal system is to manipulation by law enforcement and prosecutors, and by witnesses who are either mistaken or who lie,” he writes. With “a failed justice system[,]when the final step in the process is an execution, the potential for putting the innocent to death is unconscionable,” he says.

Given the death penalty’s intractable failures, Martelle argues that “[t]he moral arguments align against killing even convicted murderers, and a legal system as imperfect as ours has proved to be should never be used to determine whether someone lives or dies.” Governor Gavin Newsom has imposed a moratorium on executions in California, but in the long term, Martelle argues, “a gubernatorial pledge of inaction is not a solution. California voters affirmed capital punishment in a 1972 initiative, so it is up to them to get rid of it.”

With changes in public sentiment and a governor who believes the death penalty should be abolished, Martelle believes “the ground is prepared for another initiative to end this inhumane and unjust practice.” He writes that “Newsom should work with legislative leaders to move a bill … to put the issue before the voters once again in 2024. And then Newsom should use his political capital to persuade Californians that ending the death penalty is the right thing to do.”

Idaho Statesman

A December 6 editorial in the Idaho Statesman, Lack of transparency, history of errors means Idaho should hit pause on executions, argued that the continuing controversy over the execution of terminally ill death-row prisoner Gerald Pizzuto “offers the state of Idaho an opportunity to reconsider its position on the death penalty.” Issues related to Pizzuto’s tortured upbringing, brain damage, and intellectual impairment, as well as challenges to the state’s lethal-injection process, the editors wrote, “point to broader concerns with the death penalty.”

Those concerns include both wrongful convictions and state misconduct in the execution process. When it comes to guilt or innocence, the editors note, “Idaho has a very recent history of getting it wrong — very wrong,” pointing to the wrongful convictions of Christopher Tapp and Charles Fain.

Police coerced Tapp into falsely confessing to rape and murder, including threatening him with the death penalty and feeding him information about how they thought the crime had occurred. After DNA evidence did not match Tapp or any of the individuals whose names he had provided during the coercive interrogations, prosecutors accused him of lying, and played his recorded false confession to the jury. He spent two decades in prison before the killer confessed to the murder.

Fain was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death in 1983 on charges that he had sexually assaulted and murdered a child, although defense witnesses testified that he was actually in Oregon at the time of the murder. After Fain voluntarily provided hair samples to investigators, an FBI expert using since debunked hair analysis testified that the samples matched evidence from the crime scene. DNA testing in 2001 exonerated Fain and pointed to two other perpetrators.

The Statesman editors also criticized Idaho for its “history of being secretive when it comes to executions,” including its bad-faith refusal to comply with open records requests for documents related to the execution process and allegations that state officials purchased lethal injection drugs in 2012 by sending an employee across state lines with a suitcase full of cash to by drugs from an unnamed supplier in a Tacoma, Washington parking lot.

“Because there are so many questions and problems surrounding the death penalty, especially in Idaho, the state should put a hold on any executions moving forward,” the editors wrote. Lamenting that “Idaho doesn’t appear to have a mechanism, either through the governor or the Commission of Pardons and Parole, to simply pause executions,” the newspaper urged the state legislature to take up the issue, and if they refuse, advocated that the Commission of Pardons and Parole until the “questions about the protocols and the humaneness of the drugs are resolved.”


Editorial Board, Executions dwin­dle as pub­lic sup­port falls. End this bar­barism, already., St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 21, 2021; Editorial Board, It’s time to abol­ish the death penal­ty, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 23, 2021; Scott Martelle, Op-Ed: California halt­ed exe­cu­tions, now it should abol­ish the death penal­ty, Los Angeles Times, December 2, 2021; Editorial Board, Lack of trans­paren­cy, his­to­ry of errors means Idaho should hit pause on exe­cu­tions, Idaho Statesman, December 62021.