Death Penalty

3 states accounted for most of this year's low number of executions and death sentences, new report says

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Death sentences and executions remain low and geographically isolated, according to a year-end report released Thursday by the Death Penalty Information Center.

So far this year, 18 people have been sentenced to death, according to a press release and the report, called The Death Penalty in 2021: Year End Report. That matches last year’s number, which was a record low in the modern death penalty era that began after the U.S. Supreme Court temporarily suspended death penalty punishments in 1972.

Ten of the 18 people sentenced to death this year were Black or Latino. Fourteen of the death sentences involved a white victim. The death sentences were imposed in seven states: Oklahoma, Alabama, California, Texas, Florida, Nebraska and Tennessee.

Only 11 executions have been carried out so far, down from 17 executions last year and the fewest since 1988. The executions were carried out by the federal government and five states: Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, Mississippi and Missouri.

Alabama, Oklahoma and Texas accounted for a majority of death sentences and executions.

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland has since imposed a moratorium on federal executions pending review of death penalty policy put in place by the Trump administration.

The report acknowledged that the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to the low numbers but said there is still a clear trend: For seven years in a row, there have been fewer than 50 death sentences and 30 executions.

In other developments this year:

• Virginia abolished the death penalty in legislation signed into law in March. It is now among the more than 20 states that have abolished the death penalty. Another three have imposed death penalty moratoriums.

• Two more death row prisoners were exonerated, bringing the number of exonerated death penalty inmates to 186 since the 1970s. That amounts to one exoneration for every 8.3 executions in the modern era.

• Surveys showed that public support for the death penalty was at its lowest point since 1966.

Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, noted in the press release that the death penalty has become geographically isolated.

“The handful of states that continue to push for capital punishment are outliers that often disregard due process, botch executions and dwell in the shadows of long histories of racism and a biased criminal legal system,” he said.

The report said death sentences and executions in 2021 “continued to highlight the arbitrary and discriminatory application of the death penalty.”

“Rather than representing the ‘worst of the worst’ offenders, all but one of the 11 people executed in 2021 had one or more significant impairments, including: evidence of mental illness; brain injury, developmental brain damage, or an IQ in the intellectually disabled range; or chronic serious childhood trauma, neglect and/or abuse,” the report said. “Their cases were tainted by racial bias, inadequate representation and disproportionate sentencing.”

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