In late November, a federal judge emptied Wyoming’s death row of its last remaining occupant, Dale Wayne Eaton.
His lawyers don’t dispute that Mr. Eaton in 1988 raped and killed 18-year-old Lisa Marie Kimmell after kidnapping her and holding her hostage in his compound.
The problem, the court found, was that his defense team failed to present him as a three-dimensional human being at his sentencing, including pointing out the severe beatings he received as a child and how he was evaluated to have low intelligence.
The ruling seemed of the moment in a country that has seen sentiments about the death penalty continue to shift in 2014. So far this year, America has seen the fewest executions – 32 – in 20 years.
A US Supreme Court ruling from 2004 that mandates that capital juries be presented with such details about defendants has probably played into the fact that even juries in traditional death penalty states such as Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas have increasingly abandoned the death penalty. Those states, however, continue to execute large numbers of death row inmates.
“As soon as courts take crime into context in order to explain what happened, that makes the accused not a monster but a real person, and all of a sudden an abstract belief in the death penalty melts away in most people,” says Robert Smith, a law professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
A series of botched and disturbing executions in Oklahoma, Ohio, and Arizona has also contributed to the shifting debate, argues Rick Garnett, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. Death penalty states are being forced to come up with new lethal injection drug formulas as traditional suppliers of the drugs stop distributing them to states.
The downward trend in executions has several explanations, but experts say it’s probably not because of debates about innocence and guilt. Rather, they say, it’s the details of how the state goes about ending a condemned life, including the issues surrounding the lethal injection drugs.
The fact that the application of the death penalty has become more random also means that people “can increasingly imagine they could be in that situation, which creates a degree of empathy that can cross racial and class lines,” says Seth Kotch, a historian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.