The Star Democrat
Executions dwindle as public support falls — end this barbarism, already
The federal and state governments carried out just 11 executions this year, the lowest annual total in more than three decades — and the latest indication that capital punishment is losing support across the political spectrum. It’s past time to finish off the slow death of the death penalty. The fact so few inmates were executed this year is encouraging, but it also shows just how random and unjust the ultimate penalty is.
There’s no indication these were the worst 11 killers in America. Three were executed in the first weeks of 2021 by an outgoing president trying to beat the clock before an anti-death-penalty successor could take office. One was developmentally disabled. Just four were white.
Most advanced nations shuttered their death rows years ago, but America continues to allow this brutal form of “punishment.” Even its proponents don’t generally push the debunked argument anymore that executions are a deterrent to murder; the data has never supported that argument.
Nor do executions necessarily fall upon the worst of the worst murderers. Who ends up being killed by the government is more like a lottery, largely driven by random factors like the state in which the crime was committed, the luck of the draw regarding prosecutors, judges and jurors, the financial ability of the defendant to secure competent counsel — and, most disturbingly, race. Capital punishment continues to be used against Black defendants at a far greater rate than their portion of the population. Six of the 11 inmates put to death this year were Black, more than half the total, even though Black Americans comprise less than 15% of the U.S. population.
The twisted politics of the Trump era even came into play as former President Donald Trump — who never missed a chance to throw red meat to his base — embarked on a federal killing spree of 13 executions during his tenure, the first federal executions in almost 20 years. The last was carried out just five days before President Joe Biden took office — not to serve the cause of justice but rather Trump’s ego.
The fact that scores of death row inmates have been exonerated since the 1970s by DNA evidence eliminates reasonable debate about whether innocent people have been executed: It’s simply inconceivable that every single mistake has been caught. That may explain why public support for capital punishment has plunged from around 80% in the 1990s to less than 50% now, when poll respondents are given a choice between the death penalty and natural life in prison with no chance of parole.
Biden has disappointingly failed to follow through on his campaign promise to formally abolish the federal death penalty and incentivize states to follow suit. If political calculus has driven that decision, he should redo the math and realize that it would be both good policy and good politics to end this barbaric practice.