Will the U.S. Finally End the Death Penalty?

In the past, abolition efforts have faced a backlash—but Gavin Newsom’s moratorium may be different.
The American death penalty is extraordinarily fragile, with death sentences and executions on the decline. Public support for the death penalty has diminished. The practice is increasingly marginalized around the world. California, with its disproportionately large share of American death-row inmates, announces an end to the death penalty. The year? 1972. That’s when the California Supreme Court declared the death penalty inconsistent with the state’s constitutional prohibition of cruel or unusual punishments—only to have the death penalty restored a year later through popular initiative and legislation.
On Wednesday, again, California walked back its commitment to the death penalty. Though not full-fledged abolition, Governor Gavin Newsom declared a moratorium on capital punishment lasting as long as his tenure in office, insisting that the California death penalty has been an “abject…

USA: Executions, Death Sentences Up Slightly in 2017

Mississippi's death chamber
A majority of Americans still say they are in favor of the death penalty, but support for the punishment fell this year to its lowest point since 1972.

The number of people executed in the U.S. climbed slightly in 2017 but was still poised to finish at its second-lowest point in 25 years as Americans' support for capital punishment continues to wane.

Twenty-three people were executed in 2017, three more than in the previous year but well below a peak of 98 executions in 1999, according to data compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center.

Meanwhile, judges and juries sentenced 39 people to death this year, a slight increase from 31 in 2016 but 276 fewer death sentences than their peak of 315 in 1996.

The U.S. remains a rarity among developed nations in executing criminals, joined by only Japan, Singapore and Taiwan in this practice. Worldwide, the U.S. ranked seventh or eighth in judicial executions in 2016, behind China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan, Egypt and possibly Vietnam, where the total number of executions remains unclear because the sentences are apparently carried out in secret, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Support for capital punishment within the U.S., however, fell this year to 55 percent, according to Gallup, the lowest level of approval since March 1972.

That decline in support for the death sentence – though it's a practice still backed by a majority of Americans – follows a raft of negative news reports and heightened scrutiny of how states carry out executions, as well as increased attention on the racial and economic disparities in which defendants get sentenced to die.

Notably, pharmaceutical companies in the U.S. around around the world in the past eight years have taken steps to prevent U.S. states from using their drugs in executions, creating a shortage that's spurred some states to begin experimenting with other cocktails. That, in turn, has brought increased attention to botched executions, prompting questions about whether capital punishment amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

Although there are no apparent comprehensive figures for how many executions went wrong in 2017, one scholar in 2012 estimated that about 3 percent of executions were botched between 1890 and 2010. For lethal injections, the primary execution method in the U.S., that rate climbed as high as 7 percent.

In November, an execution team at an Ohio prison failed in carrying out the death sentence of Alva Campbell, a 69-year-old inmate recently diagnosed with cancer and pulmonary disease, after those administering the lethal injection could not find a vein viable for inserting an IV.

Last December, Robert Bert Smith writhed in apparent agony for 13 minutes after he was injected, reportedly heaving, gasping and coughing, clenching his fists and raising his head, and only being pronounced dead 34 minutes after the procedure began.

Attention has also focused on who is sentenced to die and why: While blacks make up about 13 percent of the U.S. population, they account for about 42 percent of those on death row, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. White convicts, by contrast, also make up close to 42 percent and Latinos about 13 percent.

As of July 1, inmates on death row numbered 2,817, according to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Evidence suggests that victims' race also plays a major role: Whites account for roughly three-quarters of the victims of those sentenced to death, and in interracial killings blacks who kill whites are sentenced to death at a far greater rate than whites who kill blacks.

Capital punishment remains on the books in 31 states, although the practice has been halted by the governors of four states since 2011: California, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington. The sentence has been abolished or overturned entirely in 19 states, plus the District of Columbia.

Just four states accounted for 75 percent of the executions carried out in the U.S. last year: Texas, which executed seven people; Arkansas, which executed four people; and Florida and Alabama, which each executed three people.

Similarly, 87 percent of new death sentences imposed in the U.S. were handed down in the South or the West, with 28 percent coming from California alone, where voters in 2016 rejected a measure that would have abolished capital punishment and approved another measure to speed up the process between sentencing and execution. Only three counties, meanwhile, accounted for 30 percent of the new sentences: Riverside County in Southern California, Clark County in Nevada and Maricopa County in Arizona.

The trend across the South, however, was not uniform: No death sentences were imposed in Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina or Virginia, and juries in Missouri did not sentence any defendant to death for the fourth straight year, the Death Penalty Information Center pointed out. Harris County in Texas, which has accounted for the most executions of any county in the U.S. since 1976 and more than any other state except Texas, saw no executions or death sentences for the first time in 43 years.

Source: U.S. News, Alan Neuhauser, December 28, 2017. Alan Neuhauser covers law enforcement and criminal justice for U.S. News & World Report. He also contributes to STEM and Healthcare of Tomorrow, and previously reported on energy and the environment. 

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"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed,
but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

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