An unprecedented series of recent court rulings that halted the execution of eight Arkansas prisoners reflects a decades-long national trend that has sharply curtailed the use of capital punishment, reports USA Today. Death penalty experts say the court decisions are in keeping with a number of factors prompting executions in the U.S. to decline, including challenges based on DNA evidence, litigation over the drugs used in executions, and increased use of life without parole as a sentencing option. Prisoner executions nationwide have plummeted over the past two decades. There were 20 prisoner executions nationwide in 2016, the fewest since 1991.
The growth of life without parole as a sentencing option in many states, as well as the high cost of prosecuting a capital case, has led prosecutors to push for the death penalty in fewer cases. Attention given to wrongful convictions and the use of DNA evidence have led to closer scrutiny of death penalty cases by both the legal system and the general public. Although lethal injection became the nation’s primary method of execution in the 1990s, recent sustained challenges by death row inmates and death penalty opponents have gained traction in the court system, says Deborah Denno, a law professor at Fordham University.