Capital Punishment Is in Decline

By Bourbon, Julie | National Catholic Reporter, March 24, 2017 | Go to article overview

Capital Punishment Is in Decline


Bourbon, Julie, National Catholic Reporter


The numbers tell the story: Capital punishment in the United States is on life support, hanging on in the 2 percent of counties that administer more than half of all executions, but losing its grip in wide swaths of the country. Whether the Supreme Court or attrition will deliver the final blow is unclear, but anti-death-penalty advocates believe it's possible that the day is coming when it will be relegated to the ash heap of history.

Consider the hard facts: Twenty-nine death sentences were handed down last year with 20 executions carried out--a 90 percent decline since the height in the 1990s when several hundred people were executed each year.

Only five states carried out executions in 2016: Georgia (9), Texas (7), Alabama (2), Missouri (1) and Florida (1). As of this writing, five inmates have been executed in three states (Texas, Missouri and Virginia) in 2017, and 21 executions are scheduled in four states, including eight in Arkansas over a 10-day period in April. Those eight, which were set in early March, represent a grim race to carry out the lethal injections before one of the approved drugs becomes unavailable or expires. Counting planned executions that have been stayed or are to be rescheduled, the current projected total for 2017 is 35 in five states.

In the last decade, 12 states have either abolished the death penalty or imposed a moratorium on its use. Public sentiment is shifting toward eliminating the death penalty altogether.

The national trend in declining execution rates "is enormously important, and it's not just that the number of death sentences is falling," said Jessica Brand, staff attorney at the Texas Defender Service and a member of the legal advisory council of the Harvard Fair Punishment Project. "I think there are a couple of reasons. One, we know we've probably executed innocent people, and people care about that. We also see people with serious mental illness, and disproportionately people of color [being sentenced to death], and those stories resonate with people."

As if to prove Brand's point about executing the innocent, January saw the 157th exoneration of a person on death row since 1973.

At the height of its popularity, in the mid-1990s, 80 percent of Americans supported the use of the death penalty according to a Gallup poll, a figure that has been slowly dropping each year since. A 2014 Public Policy Research poll found that Americans (across gender, political, racial and geographic lines) disapproved of using the death penalty on the mentally ill by a margin of 2 to 1. A 2015 Pew Research Center poll found that 71 percent of Americans think there is some risk of putting an innocent person to death, while 52 percent say minorities are more likely to be put to death than whites. As a corollary blacks make up 42 percent of those on death row, while the 2010 U.S. census showed blacks to make up 13.6 percent of the general population.

The Supreme Court outlawed the use of the death penalty for the intellectually disabled in 2002 and for minors in 2005; it has not ruled on the use of the death penalty for the mentally ill, even though the U.S. Department of Justice estimated in 2006 that 10 percent of inmates in state prisons had a severe mental illness; the rate in the general public is 4.1 percent. Mental Health America estimates that at least 20 percent of people on death row have a severe mental illness.

Even in Texas, which is often considered the epicenter of capital punishment, the tide is turning. Voters in Harris County, home to the city of Houston, elected a new district attorney last November who has indicated an openness to using capital punishment less. Recent polling in the county showed support for the death penalty at 27 percent. The state is also in the midst of a demographic change and will soon be majority non-white, which will have implications for juries in a place that has historically used the death penalty disproportionately against defendants of color. …

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