Executions at Long-time Low, but Debate Grows

Executions at Long-time Low, but Debate Grows

Prisoner executions in the U.S. last year fell to the lowest level in almost a quarter-century, with only 28 death sentences carried out. So far this year, the pace has remained just as slow, with 14 executions carried out by five states (one apiece by Alabama, Florida, and Missouri, five in Georgia, and six by Texas) during the first half of 2016.

And some signs suggest the total may go even lower.

One reason is that additional states will ask their voters in the November elections to decide the fate of capital punishment. Nebraska’s single-house legislature voted 30-19 to repeal the death penalty there over a year ago, but opponents of repeal mustered enough signatures to put the question to state voters this November. Both proponents and opponents of repeal are mounting very public campaigns of persuasion, and radio and television campaigns have been mapped out.

In the nation’s most populous state, California, a much larger initiative battle is looming since both opponents of capital punishment and advocates of revising the death penalty law to make it easier to invoke have succeeded in placing conflicting measures on the ballot. If both pass, the state will implement whichever garners more votes.

And not to ignore national politics, the Democratic party’s 2016 draft platform calls for abolishing the death penalty. Although it won’t become official until it’s adopted at the party’s mid-July national convention, the draft calls capital punishment “a cruel and unusual form of punishment” which “has no place” in this country. (Likely nominee Hillary Clinton has not yet committed to seeking an end to capital punishment; however, recent national polls show the American public still, by a small majority, continues to support capital punishment.)

Then, there are the courts. While two Supreme Court Justices (Breyer and Ginsburg) have publicly, if thus far unsuccessfully, called for taking up the question of whether the death sentence by its nature violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, but both federal and state jurists remain active on a variety of issues raised by capital punishment.

The Supreme Court’s earlier decision in Hurst v. Florida, which struck down the way that state-imposed the death sentence (by letting a sentencing judge disregard the jury’s recommendation), has, for the time being, not only blocked executions there but also in two other states (Alabama and Florida) which have similar laws.

Other decisions from the high court’s recently completed term overturned the conviction of a Death Row inmate in Georgia due to prosecutors’ exclusion of African-Americans from the jury and ordered two other state courts (Alabama and Mississippi) to reconsider death sentences given to prisoners alleging similar prosecutorial misconduct. A Pennsylvania inmate also got a new appeal due to a biased judge during his earlier appeal.

Finally, a continuing shortage of pharmaceuticals used for lethal injections is limiting the ability of some states to carry out executions. Seeking to avoid international repercussions and litigation, many producers have adopted restrictions aimed at keeping them out of the hands of death penalty states. As a result, several states have announced they have been unable to find suppliers for the drugs or have seen their supplies go unused past their expiration dates.