Executions at Lowest Levels Since 1991

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By Lance J. Rogers

Dec. 16 — The number of prisoners put to death in 2015 dropped to the lowest level since 1991, according to a report released Dec. 16 by the Death Penalty Information Center.

Just 28 inmates were executed in 2015, which is down from 35 in 2014.

“The use of the death penalty is becoming increasingly rare and increasingly isolated in the United States,” said Robert Dunham, DPIC's executive director and author of the year-end report.

“Only six states conducted any executions,” he said, “and just three—Texas, Missouri and Georgia—accounted for 86 percent of the country's executions this year.”

Shift in Public Attitude

Fewer defendants are being sentenced to death too, Dunham said. “New death sentences dropped by a third off of last year's already historic low,” he added.

There were 49 death sentences in 2015, which is the fewest in any single year since 1973, when states began rewriting their capital sentencing laws after the U.S. Supreme Court effectively voided all 40 death penalty schemes in Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972).

“These are not just annual blips in statistics, but reflect a broad change in attitudes about capital punishment across the country,” Dunham said.

Although a recent Gallup poll reports that 61 percent of Americans favor the death penalty, Dunham noted that the number changes if life without parole is put on the table.

He pointed to a 2015 American Values Survey by the Public Religion Research Institute which reported that, if given a choice, a majority of Americans—52 percent—prefer life without parole over the death penalty for defendants convicted of murder.

On the Ropes?

Two states abolished capital punishment in 2015. The Nebraska legislature in May overrode the governor's veto of a law which replaces the death penalty with life without parole (97 CrL 240, 6/3/15), and the Connecticut Supreme Court declared capital punishment unconstitutional in August (97 CrL 623, 8/19/15).

Other states have put a freeze on executions until problems with the protocol get ironed out. Executions are on hold in Oklahoma while the state attorney general's office investigates a snafu that led to prison officials receiving an unapproved drug to use in the state's lethal injection protocol (98 CrL 10, 10/7/15).

Similar freezes went into effect in 2015 in Arkansas and Ohio.

The governors of Oregon and Pennsylvania in 2015 unilaterally declared a moratorium on executions (96 CrL 532, 2/18/15).

To contact the reporter on this story: Lance J. Rogers in Washington at lrogers@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: C. Reilly Larson at rlarson@bna.com

For More Information

 

The DPIC report is available at http://src.bna.com/bza.