Death penalty decline holds steady, but disagreement over why

Use of the death penalty has declined precipitously since 2000 – a trend that held true again in 2013. But observers offer different theories about what is driving the trend.

Jeff Roberson/AP/File
A death penalty opponent stands alone in an area set aside for protesters outside the Potosi Correctional Center before the scheduled execution of Missouri death row inmate Joseph Paul Franklin last month in Bonne Terre.

Thirty-nine people were executed in the United States this year – down from a peak of 98 in 1999. To detractors of the death penalty, it’s one indicator of a trend away from the use of capital punishment. To supporters, the decline largely reflects dramatic reductions in serious crime rather than any broad shift in public support.

The Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), an anti-death-penalty nonprofit in Washington, released its annual report Thursday, citing a number of statistics it finds encouraging. Among them:

  • There have been 80 death sentences in 2013, up slightly since last year but down from peaks of 315 in 1994 and ’96.
  • Six states in the past six years have abandoned the death penalty. Maryland did so this year, joining Connecticut, Illinois, New Jersey, and New Mexico. In New York, the death penalty has been deemed unconstitutional. Thirty-two states currently have the option of the death penalty.
  • Texas, the state that often has the highest number of executions (16 in 2013), had fewer than 10 death sentences for the sixth year in a row.
  • A number of prominent death-penalty states, including Virginia and Louisiana, had no death sentences this year.

“Since around 2000, there’s been this precipitous drop in the use of the death penalty … [and] it indicates real change has happened,” says Richard Dieter, DPIC executive director and author of the report. “The majority does not have a moral objection to the death penalty, but juries are giving life sentences more than they had; prosecutors are seeking [the death penalty] less; and the public, in voting, are choosing people who are not supportive of the death penalty – it’s not a litmus test anymore.”

One reason for the shift, Mr. Dieter says, is that since the late 1990s, more people have become aware of “how many mistakes the system makes” – especially as they’ve seen death-row inmates and other prisoners released because of DNA evidence showing their innocence.

The alternative sentence of “life without parole” has also become increasingly available, Dieter says, including in Texas, which adopted it in 2005.

A number of states have had to delay executions because of controversies over lethal-injection drugs. California, Arkansas, and North Carolina have had no executions in recent years because of the difficulty of settling on a lethal injection protocol, the report says. Opposition to the death penalty among Europeans has restricted the export of certain key drugs, prompting some states to turn to compounding pharmacies, which were not regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration until this fall.

These barriers to lethal injection are “not an insurmountable problem,” Dieter says, acknowledging that the number of executions may tick back up next year if states find a resolution.

There’s no problem with the numbers in the report, but to interpret them as portending a long-term shift away from the death penalty is off-base, say death-penalty advocates.

“A large part of the reduction in executions has been a result of the decline in murders,” says John McAdams, a pro-death-penalty political scientist at Marquette University in Milwaukee. “Between the late '80s and early 2000s, there was a vast decrease in the number of murders, and executions tend to lag murders by a decade or more.”

Several Supreme Court rulings have slowed the use of the death penalty, and the recent state repeals have happened in states with Democratic governors and Democrat-controlled legislatures, says Dudley Sharp, former vice president of the pro-death-penalty group Justice for All.

Liberal judges often intentionally delay death penalty cases, he and Professor McAdams add.

The level of public support for the death penalty varies somewhat depending on the poll.

A poll this fall from Gallup shows 60 percent of Americans favor “the death penalty for a person convicted of murder,” down from a peak of 80 percent in 1994, when crime was often cited as a top concern.

Another poll this year, conducted by Angus Reid Public Opinion, asked about the death penalty in a variety of ways. Seventy-eight percent said they support the possibility of prosecutors relying on the death penalty for murder cases. Sixty-four percent said the death penalty is sometimes appropriate, while 22 percent said it is always appropriate and 9 percent said it is never appropriate. The poll was conducted immediately after the Boston marathon bombings but before a suspect had been caught.

While a number of state legislatures are likely to consider bills to repeal the death penalty in the coming year, several states have also recently passed bills that could expand executions, DPIC’s report notes. In Florida, for instance, the Timely Justice Act sets deadlines for executions once the clemency process is completed.

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