The U.S. has executed the fewest convicts this year in 20 years, only 32, says the Christian Science Monitor. Late last month, a federal judge emptied Wyoming’s death row of its last remaining occupant, Dale Wayne Eaton. A 2004 U.S. Supreme Court case requiring that capital juries be presented with details about defendants’ lives probably has played into the fact that even juries in traditional death penalty states such as Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas, increasingly have abandoned the death penalty. Those states continue to execute large numbers of death row inmates.
“As soon as courts take crime into context in order to explain what happened, that makes the accused not a monster but a real person, and all of a sudden an abstract belief in the death penalty melts away in most people,” says law Prof. Robert Smith of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A series of botched and disturbing executions in Oklahoma, Ohio, and Arizona has contributed to the shifting debate, argues Rick Garnett, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame. What’s largely not being debated is defendants’ innocence and guilt.