Use of death penalty remains ‘near historic lows,’ while public support wanes

Posted on by Edward Lott

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The federal effort to resume executions stands in stark contrast to a state trend away from capital punishment, according to a year-end report by the Death Penalty Information Center.

Use of the death penalty “remained near historic lows” in 2019, according to a Dec. 17 press release and the report. Thirty-two states have now abolished the death penalty or not carried out an execution in more than a decade.

This year, New Hampshire became the 21st state to abolish capital punishment, even as U.S. Attorney General William Barr announced a plan to resume executions after a 16-year hiatus. The federal plan to use a single lethal injection drug is on hold, however, pending a judicial review.

So far this year, there have been 22 executions and 33 new death sentences, a count that is below 2018 numbers. For five years in a row, there have been fewer than 30 executions and fewer than 50 death sentences.

California has 729 inmates on death row, the highest number among the states. They won’t be carried out any time soon, however. California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order in March that places a moratorium on executions.

Only seven states carried out executions so far this year. Texas carried out nine executions. Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia each had three executions. They were followed by Florida, with two executions, and South Dakota and Missouri, each with one execution.

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Every prisoner executed this year had either a significant mental impairment, a serious innocence claim, or a faulty legal process, the report says.

Lead author of the year-end report is Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. He says issues of innocence continue to surround some executions.

Two prisoners were executed in 2019 despite substantial doubt about their guilt, and two others came close to execution despite compelling evidence of innocence, according to Dunham.

“Our courts and public officials too frequently flat out ignore potentially deadly mistakes, and often take steps to obstruct the truth,” Dunham said in the press release. “That is one of the reasons why public support for the death penalty continues to fall.”

A Gallup poll released in November found that, if given a choice, 60% of Americans prefer life in prison without parole for convicted murderers over the death penalty.

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