Death sentences, executions stay low for fourth straight year, report says
Corridor in an abandoned penitentiary. Shutterstock.com.
For the fourth year in a row, U.S. courts imposed fewer than 50 new death sentences and states performed fewer than 30 executions in 2018, according to a year-end report from the Death Penalty Information Center.
In fact, the center’s report said support for the death penalty is eroding. The death-row population is at a 25-year low, according to the report. In 2018, Washington became the 20th state to abolish the penalty. And in October, a Gallup poll found that only 49 percent of Americans think capital punishment is “applied fairly,” the lowest level in the 18 years that Gallup has asked that question.
“Death row in the U.S. has decreased in size every year since 2001, even as the number of executions remains near a generational low,” the report said. “The combination of court decisions reversing convictions or death sentences, deaths from nonexecution causes, and exonerations now consistently outpaces the number of new death sentences imposed.”
Since 1973—the year after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down capital punishment laws in Furman v. Georgia—American courts consistently handed down more than 100 death sentences per year, often more than 200. Use of the sentence peaked in 1996 with 315 sentences but began a sharp decline around 2000 and has been under 50 new sentences since 2015. In 2018, the report said, the number of new death sentences is expected to total 42, once a three-judge panel in Ohio makes its ruling Dec. 28.
The reduction in sentences and executions may stem from a reduction in popular support for the death penalty. In addition to the Gallup poll, the report cites election results in Colorado—where governor-elect Jared Polis had promised to abolish the death penalty—and in three states where efforts to reinstate the death penalty were defeated. Pope Francis, the leader of the Catholic Church, formally condemned executions, calling them “an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”
Also slowing the rate of executions was the controversy over lethal injections. As pharmaceutical companies have started declining to sell drugs to states wanting to use them for executions, states have turned to compounding pharmacies with safety problems—an issue in Missouri and Texas, the report said—or lied to suppliers about the purpose of the drugs. Both Nevada and Nebraska were sued by drug companies that said the states misrepresented their purchases.
And courts have weighed in, too. Most prominently, the Washington Supreme Court abolished the death penalty in the state, in October, saying it was “imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner.” In addition, the U.S. Supreme Court stayed the execution of a man who is unable to remember his crimes because of dementia and a series of strokes. The high court heard oral arguments on whether executing such a person violates the Eighth Amendment.
The news wasn’t all good for foes of capital punishment. Those who were executed often were part of vulnerable groups, the report said. Working with the Promise of Justice Initiative, the Death Penalty Information Center found that at least 11 of the 25 people executed in 2018 had significant evidence of mental illness; at least nine had evidence of intellectual disability or brain damage; at least 11 had signs of serious childhood trauma; and six were age 21 or younger at the time of their crimes. In addition, the report noted that at least two people exonerated in 2018 were foreign nationals, who may be especially vulnerable in the U.S. legal system.
“While there has been one exoneration for about every nine executions in the U.S. overall, there has been one exoneration of a foreign national for every 6.17 executions of a foreign national,” the report noted, “suggesting that foreign nationals may be more likely to face wrongful convictions and death sentences than U.S. citizens.”
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