Capital Punishment Continues to ‘Wither’ Across the U.S.: Report

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Seattle death penalty protest. Photo by javacolleen via Flickr

State authorities executed 22 prisoners so far this year, and 33 state inmates were sent to death row—continuing a five-year decline in application of the death penalty across the U.S., according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

The figures underline the starkly different approaches to capital punishment taken by the states and the federal government, which is trying to revive capital punishment after a 16-year hiatus, said the Center, a nonprofit group advocating for abolition.

In its annual year-end report released Tuesday, the Center noted that, with the decision this year by New Hampshire to abolish the death penalty and the declaration of a moratorium in California, “half of all U.S. states have abolished the death penalty or now prohibit executions, and no state in New England authorizes capital punishment at all.”

The Center said the decline shows that “capital punishment continued to wither across the U.S. in 2019, disappearing completely in some regions and significantly eroding in others.”

The number of executions is expected to remain the same through the end of 2019, but the Center predicts that the total number of death sentences will rise to between 35 and 37, since several trials were still in the penalty-phase when the report was written.

According to the Center, 2019 will be the “fifth consecutive year with fewer than 30 executions and fewer than 50 death sentences”—a decline of 85 percent and 75 percent respectively since their peaks in the 1990s.

The continued decline represents a “stark contrast” with the feds’ renewed appetite for capital punishment—and with public opinion, the Center said.

In a memorandum issued July 19, Attorney General William Barr directed the Federal Bureau of Prisons to schedule five executions of inmates currently on death row in order to bring “justice to victims of the most horrific crimes.”

The last federal execution occurred in 2003.  But the feds’ attempt to restart the punishment was stymied when, earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court failed to challenge a lower court injunction three days before the scheduled execution of the first of five prisoners earmarked for death under the Barr memo.

The Center’s figures also showed that use of the death penalty is now largely confined to the South. Only seven states carried out executions in 2019: Texas, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Dakota, and Missouri.

There are still 2,656 inmates on death row—only a slight decline since last year’s figure of 2,738. Florida and Ohio imposed the most death sentences, with six each.

According to the Center, California remains the leader in its death row population, with 729 inmates.

The Center said that the continued erosion of the death penalty reflected growing public opposition to capital punishment in the U.S.

A Gallup poll released last month found that 60 percent favored life without parole for murder rather than execution, the highest percentage since the pollsters added the question to their surveys in 1985.

The inmates executed during 2019 further underscored the reasons why advocates have decried the death penalty as a punishment that is disproportionately suffered by inmates who have had an inadequate defense or are the victims of bias.

“The stories behind the cases in which executions were carried out or new death sentences were imposed belied the myth that the death penalty is reserved for the worst of the worst,” said the report, whose lead author was Robert Dunham, the Center’s executive director.

“Every prisoner executed in 2019 either had a significant mental impairment, a serious innocence claim, or [a] demonstrably faulty legal process.”

In his July memo, Barr instructed Bureau of Prisons acting director Hugh Hurwitz to schedule the executions of five inmates currently held on death row at the U.S. penitentiary in Terre Haute, In.

“Each of these inmates has exhausted their appellate and post-conviction remedies, and [there are] currently no legal impediments prevent their executions,” the memo said.

“Additional executions will be scheduled at a later date.”

Barr cited Congress’ authorization of the death penalty as the authority for his decision.

“Under administrations of both parties, the Department of Justice has sought the death penalty against the worst criminals, including these five murderers, each of whom was convicted by a jury of his peers after a full and fair proceeding,” the memo said.

“The Justice Department upholds the rule of law—and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.”

Read the Center’s full report here.

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