Death Penalty

Death sentences show slight uptick in 2018 after big decline, new report says

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Corridor in an abandoned penitentiary. Image from

Death sentences imposed in the United States dropped to 31 in 2016, before rising slightly to 39 in 2017 and 42 in 2018, according to a new report citing estimates by the Death Penalty Information Center.

Death sentences peaked at 315 in 1996, then declined over time until reaching the low point in 2016, according to the report by Ronald Tabak, a special counsel for pro bono at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.

Twenty-five executions were carried out last year. It was the fourth straight year with less than 30 executions.

Tabak’s report is the 19th chapter in an ABA book called The State of Criminal Justice 2019.

The death penalty tends to be geographically concentrated, Tabak said. Half of the new death sentences last year were imposed in just four states: California, Florida, Ohio and Texas. And just five states— Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee and Texas—accounted for 88% of the country’s executions last year.

Some states that used to be among the leaders in imposing capital punishment have gone years without any new death sentences, Tabak wrote.

One notable example is Georgia, which in March 2019 had gone five years without a new death sentence. Prosecutors in the state are turning more often to sentences of life without parole; last year only three death sentences were sought, according to a January story by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

At the end of 2018, another Southern state, North Carolina, had gone two years in a row without imposing any new death sentences.

Even though some states are providing better representation to capital defendants and offering more alternatives to the death penalty, defendants sentenced to death in the past aren’t benefiting, Tabak tells the ABA Journal.

When courts deal with older cases, they don’t take into account that the defendant might not receive the death penalty if the case was heard today, he says. Courts also avoid addressing the merits of constitutional issues because of procedural technicalities, he says.

Tabak also says there is no consistency in carrying out capital punishment. Defendants with the same level of culpability may get the death penalty in one jurisdiction and a sentence well below life without parole in another.

Very often, Tabak says, a sentence “depends less on what you did and more on the quality of your defense counsel, the nature of the prosecutors’ attitudes toward and manner of pursuing the death penalty, and the way in which the court system deals with your constitutional claims,” he says.

In 2014, Tabak received the Father Drinan Award for Distinguished Service to the ABA group that is now known as the ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice. He is known for his advocacy for fairness in administration of the death penalty and is the longtime chair of the section’s Death Penalty Committee.

Hat tip to the Marshall Project.

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