« Thanks to SCOTUS McDonnell ruling, record-long sentence for Congress member reduced to (significant) time served | Main | "Disproportionate Impact: An Impetus to Raise the Standard of Proof at Sentencing" »

December 2, 2017

Lies, damn lies, and executions statistics for the first year of recent presidential terms

This recent story, reporting that Texas' last scheduled execution of the year was canceled, suggests it is not too early to start taking stock of 2017 with respect to the application of the death penalty.  This DPIC upcoming execution page reports that no more executions are slated to go forward in 2017, meaning that Ohio closed the books on 2017 executions with its failed efforts to kill Alva Campbell (details here) and that Texas and Florida were the last states to actually complete executions with their separate executions on November 8th (details here).  Notably, the AP has this new accounting headlined "US executions increase slightly in 2017," which includes these details:

The year-end numbers also show that Texas will regain its standing as the nation’s most active state in carrying out capital punishment....

Texas put to death seven prisoners this year, matching the state total from 2016. They were among the 23 inmates — up from 20 last year — put to death in eight states in 2017. Arkansas carried out four executions, followed by Alabama and Florida with three each, and Ohio and Virginia with two each. Georgia, which topped the nation in 2016 with nine, executed one prisoner this year, as did Missouri.

Oklahoma, which typically has one of the busiest execution chambers in the country, went another year without putting any inmates to death as the state struggles with implementing a new execution protocol. Oklahoma put all executions on hold two years ago after several mishaps, including a botched lethal injection in 2014 and drug mix-ups in 2015, and the state’s attorney general’s office has said it won’t request any execution dates until at least 150 days after new protocols are released....

Executions in the U.S. peaked in 1999, when 98 inmates were put to death. The following year, Texas alone carried out a record 40 executions. As recently as 2010, the national total was 46, but it has been declining steadily. “Partly it’s because of impediments to execution, like the embargo of the optimum drugs,” said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the California-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which advocates for capital punishment.  “Although Texas seems to have found ways to get them, many states have not.” Scheidegger also attributed the decline to a “dramatically lower” homicide rate compared with the 1990s and “greater selectivity in which defendants are sentenced to death, by both prosecutors and juries.”...

At least eight inmates — five from Texas and one each from Missouri, Alabama and Ohio — are set to die in the first quarter of 2018. The first, scheduled for Jan. 18 in Texas, is Anthony Allen Shore, who confessed to killing multiple people and is known in the Houston area as the “Tourniquet Killer.”

As the title of this post hints, one (distorting?) way to look at this year's execution numbers is to reflect on the impact (or lack of impact) from a change in presidential leadership in 2017. Because executions take place almost exclusively at the state level — there has not been a federal execution in nearly 15 years — arguably the politics and actions of the person in the Oval Office has little or no impact on yearly execution realities. But I actually think a President (and an Attorney General) can and historically have, at least in subtle ways, an impact on capital policies and practices nationwide. And, as the accounting below suggests, the raw first-year-of-term US execution numbers (drawn from DPIC here) are just intriguing:

Jimmy Carter only term: 1 execution in 1977


Ronald Reagan first term: 1 execution in 1981

Ronald Reagan second term: 18 executions in 1985


George H.W. Bush only term: 16 executions in 1989


Bill Clinton first term: 38 executions in 1993

Bill Clinton second term: 74 executions in 1997


George W. Bush first term: 66 executions in 2001

George W. Bush second term: 60 executions in 2005


Barack Obama first term: 52 executions in 2009

Barack Obama second term: 39 executions in 2013


Donald Trump first term: 23 executions in 2017


So, in last four decades we have had: five Democratic Prez first terms with a total of 204 executions (40.8/year); six Republican Prez first terms with a total of 184 executions (30.7/year). 

This fact that there have been, in modern times, an average of 10 more executions in the year starting Democratic terms than in the year starting Republican terms is itself perhaps proof that who is in the Oval Office is of no matter to state execution practices. But I still find even this facile sort of number crunching interesting, as will be watching whether Prez Trump and his Department of Justice gives any attention to these matters in the years ahead.

December 2, 2017 at 10:45 AM | Permalink


The death penalty of the United States is a cruel hoax by the Supreme court on the people of the nation, especially on black murder victims.

Time to end this vicious and costly game by the Court. Move on to the Italian Death Penalty.

Posted by: David Behar | Dec 2, 2017 1:40:16 PM

I don't find the political label of much relevance here -- it would be more useful to look at sentences there.

The low numbers in the early years was a result of the results of the moratorium and the lag time in applying Furman and the first set of people running out of appeals. This as a whole would result in an uptick somewhere in the late 1980s or early 1990s.

Presidents have limited power here except in regard to federal prosecutions but there were only a handful of federal executions. They do have some limited [more so if they pick strong ideological judges in either direction in death belt circuits] influence over time as to nominations. They might be a way, if they really push it, to do more but not aware much of any president doing that. Not that I'm totally sure what that would be.

Posted by: Joe | Dec 2, 2017 3:17:39 PM

ETA: Again, most of these cases are state cases though there are federal prosecutions; but even there, executions are what at issue. Maybe, a bit more on these "at least in subtle ways" as compared as other factors.

Posted by: Joe | Dec 2, 2017 3:19:47 PM

Vaffanculo DB, vaffanculo miserabile stronzo.

Posted by: Claudio Giusti | Dec 3, 2017 3:41:19 PM

Cool Italian Word of the Week: Stronzo (piece of shit).

Posted by: David Behar | Dec 4, 2017 12:33:59 AM

ass hole

Posted by: Claudio Giusti | Dec 4, 2017 2:35:12 PM

I can't prove it, but I agree with the gist of the suggestion. The tone from the executive has an important influence on many issues, including executions and death sentences. I don't think the executive merely reflects sentiment, it guides it (in part, obviously).

Of course, the policies of the executive may also be relevant for substantive reasons. To name a couple: importation of LI drugs and certification of states for expedited federal habeas review.

Posted by: John | Dec 5, 2017 12:06:39 AM

Does the immunity of the court extend to its agents carrying out a court order to execute a prisoner? If it does, can the executioner import carfentanyl from China, openly, and use it as a poison, not under the jurisdiction of the FDA, but under the jurisdiction of the Agriculture Department? The latter has poisons as a matter of regulation, and understand their praxis better.

Posted by: David Behar | Dec 5, 2017 2:04:51 PM

I am reminded of how many factors go into the timing of an execution. I had a case with two co-defendants, both of whom got the death penalty.
Trials occurred three months apart (by fluke of sequencing, non-shooter went first). That three month gap grew to eleven months at the state supreme court on direct appeal. As both offenders were involved in multiple states, further proceedings were delayed while the other state tried their cases resulting in a three-year gap by the time that state collateral review proceedings ended. By the time that the federal court of appeals denied their appeals on the habeas petition, however, the gap was back down to four months. Then, when the inmates were on the wait list to be executed, the non-shooter went just before the drugs expired and by the time that the new protocol had been approved and executions resumed over four years had passed.

While presidents and governors can do a lot of things that have some impact on how cases move through the pipeline, how many executions occur in a given year is relatively meaningless. It is the trend over time that has more significance and, even then, the impact of a given president or given governor may not be felt for years. Even if a president/governor appoints judges who are sympathetic to the death penalty, different judges process cases and write opinions at different rates.

Posted by: tmm | Dec 5, 2017 4:41:31 PM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB