Death Penalty

Executions fall along with support for the death penalty; is capital punishment nearing an end?

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Noose and law scales.

Only 17 people have been executed so far this year, a 32 percent decline from the number of executions in the same period last year.

The drop in the number of executions comes as support for the death penalty wanes, the Wall Street Journal (sub. req. ) reports. Last year only 61 percent of Americans favored the death penalty, compared with 80 percent in 1994, according to a Gallup poll.

The Wall Street Journal attributes the slowdown primarily to three factors: the short supply of execution drugs; growing scrutiny of expert testimony and evidence; and the U.S. Supreme Court decision Hurst v. Florida, which held that jurors, rather than judges, must make findings on facts necessary to impose the death penalty.

In response to the decision, Florida passed a new law that allowed jurors to recommend the death penalty on a 10-2 vote. The Florida Supreme Court struck down the law on Oct. 14, saying that jurors must be unanimous in recommending the death penalty.

The New York Times notes the decline in executions and the Gallup poll in an op-ed that considers whether the death penalty is nearing its end. The article concludes capital punishment won’t be totally eliminated until there is a definitive ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The article points to recent dissents by Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor that expressed misgivings about the constitutionality of the death penalty.

In a post at his Sentencing Law and Policy blog, Ohio State University law professor Douglas Berman says the notion that the death penalty is collapsing “is largely a product of effective litigation by abolitionists and the work of courts, not really a reflection of a sea-change in public opinion or radical changes in the work of most legislatures and prosecutors in key regions of the United States.”

He notes polls showing California voters are likely to support a referendum to make the death penalty in the state more efficient, that Ohio is working to resume executions and has scheduled executions for nearly two dozen inmates, that federal jurors in Massachusetts sentenced Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death for the Boston Marathon bombings, and that federal prosecutors were eager to pursue the death penalty against alleged church shooter Dylann Roof.

Typo in the third paragraph corrected at 2:50 p.m.

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