As 2020 draws to a close, this year has offered both hope and disappointment for criminal justice reformers, with a pandemic leading to transformations in courts and corrections systems, and a momentous reawakening on racial justice issues and policing.
It has also been a year of good news and bad news for opponents of the death penalty.
According to the year-end report from the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) released Wednesday, executions and death sentences are at a historic low.
“At the end of the year, more states and counties had moved to end or reduce death-penalty usage, fewer new death sentences were imposed than in any prior year since capital punishment resumed in the U.S. in the 1970s, and states carried out fewer executions than at any time in the past 37 years,” said Robert Dunham, DPIC’s executive director and the lead author of the report.
During the year, Colorado became the 22nd state to abolish the death penalty, while both Louisiana and Utah observed 10 years with no executions.
But the bad news for capital punishment opponents has been delivered at the federal level.
The revival of federal executions in 2020, initiated by President Donald Trump’s administration, has been “out of step” with the practices of previous presidents, charged Dunham.
Underlining the point, the two prisoners on federal death row were executed this month, bringing the number of those executed to 10 this year—with another three scheduled to die in January—in what some observers call an unprecedented wave of executions ordered by a departing administration.
“What was happening in the rest of the country showed that the administration’s policies were not just out of step with the historical practices of previous presidents; they were also completely out of step with today’s state practices,” Dunham said.
The DPIC reports that the total number of executions in the U.S. was the lowest since 1991, and represented the lowest number of state-level executions since 1983.
There was also a record low in death sentences — just 18 —imposed on criminals this past year, which represents a significant decline from 31 in 2016, which was the previous record low.
But DPIC researchers caution that this trend might not hold over the long term, considering that many sentencing proceedings and court trials were delayed because of the pandemic.
The pandemic truly pumped the brakes on executions, as only two states, Missouri and Texas, including the federal government, carried out executions after the coronavirus reached American shores and ground the system to a halt, the DPIC report said.
No other state conducted an executions after July 8.
Despite the difficulty of predicting future trends because of the unorthodox year, before the courts closed and trials were postponed because of the coronavirus, 2020 was already on track to be the sixth consecutive year with fewer than 50 new death sentences.
The continuing decline has occurred in tandem with declining public support for capital punishment.
According to a recent Gallup poll cited in the report, “the 43 percent of people who opposed the death penalty in 2020 is the highest level of opposition since 1966.”
Public opinion, however, appears not to have impacted the federal government’s approach.
Feds Revive Executions
In July 2019, Attorney General William Barr announced that under the Trump administration, capital punishment for federal death row inmates would be revived, noting that four federal inmates convicted of murdering children were already scheduled to take place.
Now, with 2020 being the first full year of the federal implementation, advocates have been anxious to hear the data.
By the end of 2020, the DPIC researchers found the federal government had conducted more prisoner executions in five months than any other presidency in the 20th or 21st centuries.
Moreover, executions ordered since the election represent the first ordered by a lame-duck president in more than a century, the report noted.
The cases most frequently picked up by the media were Brandon Bernard, 40, and Alfred Bourgeois, 56, who were the ninth and 10th federal executions of the year. Bourgeois was one of the first inmates scheduled to be executed in 2019, CNN details.
For more information on the Bernard case, please see “Child Abuse and the Death Penalty: The Cruel Connection,” The Crime Report, Dec. 11, 2020.
The DPIC end-of-year report highlights “problematic federal executions” which included the first ever federal execution of a Native American for a crime committed on tribal land — not federal soil — which the authors write violated Native sovereignty.
Moreover, America saw the first federal executions in 78 years of adults who were sentenced to death as teenagers, as well as executions of individuals with disabilities or serious diagnosed mental illnesses, the DPIC analysis found.
Profiles of the Executed
The DPIC uncovered some trends in terms of demographics and lived experience for those who were executed in 2020.
First, every prisoner executed this year was age 21 or younger at the time of the convicted offense, or had at least one psychosocial impairment. Meanwhile, the racial disparities among the executed remain on trend with what has been noted for decades.
Almost half of the defendants executed [were] people of color and 76 percent of the executions involved individuals of color charged with the deaths of white victims.
Of the 24 individuals executed at the time of the DPIC’s report, there is evidence that some suffered from significant mental illness (7); brain injury, developmental brain damage, or an IQ in the intellectually disabled range (5); as well as chronic serious childhood trauma, neglect, and/or abuse (13).
Alfred Bourgeois, who was federally executed on Friday and not counted in the above statistics, suffered from all categories of impairment, the DPIC said.
But the writers and researchers at DPIC also noted an encouraging trend in exonerations.
“Five people were exonerated from death row in 2020, bringing the number of people exonerated from death row to 172 since 1973,” the researchers found. “In each of the five cases, prosecutorial misconduct contributed to the wrongful conviction.”
Moreover, this year has brought important developments to racial justice legislation that the authors hope will spark more change in the year to come.
A ruling by North Carolina’s Supreme Court reinstated claims filed by death row defendants seeking relief based on racial bias in their trials.
In California, the legislature passed an expansive Racial Justice act, which strengthens the prohibition against discriminatory jury selection, among other things.
Robert Dunham is the Death Penalty Information Center executive director and the lead author of the report. Dunham has 25 years of experience as a capital litigator and teacher of death penalty law, including arguing cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.
The full DPIC report can be accessed here.
Andrea Cipriano is a TCR staff writer.