Death Penalty Use At ‘Historic Lows’

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The use of the death penalty remained near historic lows in 2018–with 25 executions and 42 death sentences expected–according to a report released Friday by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC).

The report noted that 2018 marked the fourth consecutive year with fewer than 30 executions and 50 death sentences, reflecting a long-term decline of capital punishment across the United States.

“America continues its long-term movement away from the death penalty,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the DPIC, an advocacy group that lobbies against the death penalty.

“Even in the face of inflammatory political rhetoric urging its expanded use, voters showed that the death penalty is no longer a political wedge issue.”

Application of the death penalty remained limited geographically: only eight states carried out the 25 executions: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Nebraska, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Texas, the study found. 

Texas accounted for more than half of all executions; there were fewer executions in the rest of the country than in any year since 1991. 

 In 2018, 14 states and the federal government imposed death sentences, with 57 percent of the projected 42 sentences coming from just four states: Texas and Florida (both with seven) and California and Ohio (both with five), the report said. 

No county imposed more than two death sentences for the first time in the modern era of the death penalty (after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down all death penalty statutes in 1972), according to the report authors. 

Significantly, Washington became the 20th state to abolish the death penalty this year when its Supreme Court unanimously ruled that capital punishment violates the state constitution because it  imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner.

And governors in Oregon and Pennsylvania who had imposed or extended moratoria on the death penalty were reelected. Colorado, the third state with a moratorium, elected a governor who campaigned on repealing the death penalty.

Even in the face of inflammatory political rhetoric urging its expanded use, voters showed that the death penalty is no longer a political wedge issue, said Dunham in a press statement accompanying the report.

“The reelection of governors who imposed death penalty moratoria, the replacement of hardline pro-death-penalty prosecutors with reformers, and Washington’s court decision striking down its death penalty suggest that we will see even greater erosion of the death penalty in the years ahead.” 

The report also noted that more than 70 percent of the people executed showed evidence of serious mental illness, brain damage, intellectual impairment, or chronic abuse and trauma.

Four were executed despite “substantial innocence claims,” the report said.

The Death Penalty Information Center (www.deathpenaltyinfo.org) is a non-profit organization serving the media and the public with analysis and information on issues concerning capital punishment. DPIC was founded in 1990 and prepares in-depth reports, issues press releases, conducts briefings for the media, and serves as a resource to those working on this issue.

A full copy of the report can be found here.

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