For another year, US sees drop in executions. What's driving the decline?

Capital punishment is the law of the land in 31 states, yet just six exercised the policy in 2015, the fewest in 27 years.

Eric Risberg/AP/File
The death chamber of the lethal injection facility at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, Calif., is shown in this Sept. 21, 2010 photo. The number of people executed in the United States in 2015 dropped to the lowest level since 1991 as states impose fewer death sentences and defendants in capital cases have access to better legal help. The Death Penalty Information Center, a group that opposes executions and tracks the issue, said 28 inmates were executed this year. That’s down from 35 last year and far below the peak of 98 in 1999.

The number of people executed in the United States continues its decline, with 2015 being the lowest on record since 1991, a fact attributable to states sentencing capital punishment with less frequency, defendants gaining access to better legal counsel, and lethal drugs becoming harder to source.

As of Dec. 15, 28 inmates had been executed this year, according to The Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), a nonprofit organization that opposes the death penalty and keeps data on the policy. That number is down from 35 last year and a sharp contrast to the 98 who were executed in 1999. Additionally, 49 criminal defendants received death sentences this year, a decline of about a third from 2014 and the lowest it has been since the early 1970s, The Associated Press reports.

As The Christian Science Monitor reported this time last year:

The decline in the use of the death penalty stems from a combination of factors, including a large drop in violent crime between the late 1980s and early 2000s and the fact that all states with the death penalty now offer the alternative of life in prison without parole.

But various aspects surrounding how the death penalty is imposed have also been troubling to some state leaders in recent years.

“Six states since 2007 have abolished it completely.... They said the death penalty risks innocent lives, the death penalty costs a lot, the death penalty is biased in some cases,” says Richard Dieter, DPIC’s [former] executive director, in an interview last year with The Christian Science Monitor.

Executions in Ohio, Arizona, and Oklahoma generated strong reactions this year because of drawn-out lethal injections that some deemed to be cruel. Such states have resorted to using new lethal injection drug formulas because the traditional providers of the drugs have stopped supplying states.

A lethal injection drug shortage persisted into 2015 resulting in several states, including Ohio and Nebraska, halting executions for the foreseeable future. In Arkansas, a judge put a stop to executing eight inmates during a legal dispute over the state's ability to keep secret the names of manufacturers and sellers supplying the state with lethal drugs.

Oklahoma also stopped its executions until at least midway through 2016 while investigators look into two botched lethal injections and a third that was stopped practically last minute because the wrong drug was delivered.

As states grapple with the issue, some members of the Supreme Court also appear to be shifting opinions. While the court upheld Oklahoma's use of a controversial sedative in lethal injections, two justices said for the first time that it's "highly likely" the death penalty itself is unconstitutional.

Capital punishment is the law of the land in 31 states, yet just six exercised the policy this year — Florida, Missouri, Georgia, Oklahoma, Texas, and Virginia. This is the fewest number of states to carry out the death penalty in 27 years.

Texas had the most, with 13 executions, with Missouri in second with six, and five in Georgia. Texas sentenced two people to death this year, and Georgia and Virginia currently have no new death row inmates.

Nationwide, there are fewer than 3,000 people on death row, a first since 1995.

"What we're seeing is the cumulative effect of falling public support for the death penalty," Robert Dunham, the group's new executive director, says in an interview with the AP.

Still, in cases of murder, the majority of Americans, 61 percent, support the death penalty, according to an annual October Gallup poll on the issue, though public support has been in decline for more than a decade.

Adding to the slowdown of executions is better legal counsel for those facing potential capital punishment sentences. Georgia, Texas, and Virginia have "statewide capital-case defender programs," the AP reports,  that are run by attorneys who specialize in such cases.

"There is a very significant relationship between providing defendants good representation and the outcomes of capital cases," Mr. Dunham, of DPIC, says.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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