Death penalty falls to new low as voters seek resurgence
Use of the death penalty in the United States fell to a historic low in 2016, even as voters in three states passed ballot initiatives in support of capital punishment, according to a year-end report from the Death Penalty Information Center.
Thirty death sentences are expected to be imposed by the end of the year — a 39 percent decrease from 2015 — marking the lowest number of executions in a single year since 1972, the beginning of a four-year moratorium on capital punishment. The U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed its legality in 1976.
The 20 executions carried out in five states in 2016 represent the lowest number in a single year since 1991, when 14 inmates were put to death, according to the report. Executions peaked in 1999, when 98 felons were put to death.
The continuing decline in the use of the death penalty and in death sentences “reflects both the increasing geographic isolation and outlier application of capital punishment in the United States,” the report states, noting that a lack of access to drugs used in lethal injections has been a major factor in limiting the ability of states to carry out executions.
But Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, said fewer death penalty-eligible cases and a greater selectivity by prosecutors in their pursuit of capital punishment has played a role in this year’s lower figures.
“On the whole, I think the death penalty is being imposed where it is warranted,” said Mr. Scheidegger, who helped write California’s Proposition 66, which streamlines the appeals process for death row inmates.
Voters in Nebraska and Oklahoma also passed initiatives this year that protect the use of capital punishment in their states.
The Jan. 3 sentencing of Dylann Roof, who gunned down nine black churchgoers in a racially motivated attack, could serve as an early indicator for how South Carolina jurors feel about putting a convicted murderer on death row.
For Mr. Scheidegger, the case represents exactly the kind of horrific crime the death penalty is meant to punish.
The last time someone was put to death in South Carolina was 2011. The state has 43 inmates on death row.
A total of 2,905 inmates currently are held in prisons across the country awaiting death sentences.
Even if juries or voters support capital punishment, the courts are still wrestling with its legality.
The California Supreme Court on Tuesday halted implementation of Proposition 66 in order to give judges more time to consider a lawsuit alleging the measure would disrupt the courts, cost more money and limit the ability to mount proper appeals.
The initiative was one of two capital punishment measures Californians voted on this year: They rejected a proposal to repeal the death penalty and replace it with life in prison without the possibility of parole.
State courts in Florida and Delaware this year ruled that portions of their statutes were unconstitutional because they allowed death sentences even when juries did not reach unanimous decisions.
This week the Arizona Department of Corrections agreed to settle part of a lawsuit over drugs used in lethal injections — promising not to use the sedative midazolam as part of a three-drug cocktail for executions.
Executions have been on hold in the state since the 2014 death of convicted killer Joseph Rudolph Wood, who gasped and heaved during his execution and took nearly two hours to die after he was given midazolam. His attorney said the execution was botched.
A remaining claim in the ongoing lawsuit alleges Arizona abused its discretion in the methods and amounts of drugs used in past executions.
None of the three states that passed death penalty measures executed anyone in 2016, though nine people were placed on death row in California.
The Death Penalty Information Center report notes that 2016 marked the first time in at least 40 years that no state imposed 10 or more death sentences in a year.
“The death sentences continued to be disproportionately concentrated in a small number of outlier counties and the product of outlier practices,” the report states.
Death sentences peaked in 1996, with 315 such sentences imposed.
The report also highlights concerns about how the death penalty is used, noting that 12 of the 20 felons put to death in 2016 exhibited “significant evidence of mental illness, brain impairment, and/or low intellectual functioning.” Likewise, 11 convicts sentenced to death in 2016 exhibited evidence of intellectual disability, severe mental illness or were under the age of 21 when they committed the crimes.