Capital punishment falls to decades-long lows as attitudes shift

The US has sentenced fewer people to death and performed the fewest executions since the 1990s. Although attitudes are changing, other factors contribute to the significant decline.

Nevada Department of Corrections via AP
This Nov. 10, 2016 photo released by the Nevada Department of Corrections shows the viewing room looking toward the newly completed execution chamber at Ely State Prison in Ely, Nev. Nevada hasn't carried out an execution since 2006, and two state lawmakers have proposed abolishing capital punishment altogether.

Thirty people were sentenced to death in the US this year, and 20 people were executed, the lowest numbers since the 1970s and 1990s, respectively, according to a new report from the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit database that opposes capital punishment.

“America is in the midst of a major climate change concerning capital punishment,” Robert Dunham, the center’s executive director and the report’s author, said in a statement. 

Based on overall numbers, the nation does appear to be shifting away from the death penalty's mid-90s peak, when 315 people were sentenced to death in 1996. But laws and public attitudes remain split along political and geographic lines. The sharp drop in these numbers can be attributed as much to drug shortages and legal challenges as it can be to moral opposition, analysts say.

Of the 31 states that have the death penalty, only five held executions in 2016, according to the report. Georgia carried out the most – nine – while Texas was next, at seven. Two were carried out in Alabama, and one each in Missouri and Florida. These 20 total executions were the lowest nationwide total since 1991.

Just five states sentenced more than one person to death this year. California, whose population is one-tenth of the US, imposed nine death sentences, followed by five in Ohio, four in Texas, three in Alabama, and two in Florida. Because of legal challenges to legal injections, however, California hasn't executed any of the 741 inmates on its death row since 2006.

The total number of death sentences, meanwhile, is down more than 90 percent, from a recent high of 315 in 1996. 

Although several factors contribute to the drop in capital punishment, Americans' support does seem to be waning. The Pew Research Center found that roughly half of Americans support the death penalty today, compared to 80 percent in the 1990s.

Experts on capital punishment partly attribute this change in attitude to headline-making cases of botched executions. In recent years, the US saw several botched lethal injections where problems in the chamber led to situations where the condemned may have suffered in their last minutes. In Arizona, for example, a condemned man took nearly two hours to die by lethal injection.

States have also been scrambling to find drugs for lethal injection since European pharmaceutical companies imposed a sales ban about five years ago, citing ethical concerns. Pfizer also imposed a sales ban this year, cutting off the last major US supplier.

Defendants have also mounted more robust legal challenges, leading to costly trials over death sentences.

Despite these challenges to capital punishment, some states haven’t softened their attitudes as much as others. Voters in California and Nebraska rejected proposals last month to ban capital punishment in their states.

Some regions, like the South, also tend to be more in favor of capital punishment, in part because of their unique histories, as The Christian Science Monitor’s Patrik Jonsson reported when he visited Duval County, Fla. The county has sentenced more people to death per capita than anywhere else in the country.

To some experts, the South's deep-running honor codes, even an appreciation for "eye-for-an-eye" justice, factors into the equation.

“Why Southerners have retained a culture of vengeance within the criminal-justice system is based in part on the idea of the criminal paying a debt to society, but also [of us affirming] our own moral values by how severely we punish that criminal,” Amy Wood, a cultural historian at Illinois State University in Normal, told the Monitor in 2014.

In other states, debates over capital punishment have centered not on the death penalty, per se, but the method. In 2015, Utah brought back a choice allowing the condemned to choose a firing squad over lethal injection. The state "has a long, colorful history of executions, where concerns about the firing squad go back to the 19th century," influenced in part by the Mormon church, the Monitor reported. 

But in response to some complaints about the firing squad, others counter that "lethal injection and its surface appearance of a clean, quiet death may have done more to assuage Americans’ squeamishness than to force an open debate about the moral and judicial merits of executions, which are, by their nature, acts of violence," Mr. Jonsson wrote.

But the Supreme Court could put an end to capital punishment altogether, Jordan Steiker, a University of Texas Law School professor and the director of its Capital Punishment Center, told Reuters.  

"We are on a path toward constitutional abolition. The length of that path will be dictated by uncertainties concerning the Supreme Court's composition and how much the withering of the death penalty continues," he said.

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.  

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