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July 6, 2020

Death Penalty Information Center releases "Mid-Year Review" detailing "Record-Low Death Penalty Use in First Half of 2020"

I just saw that the Death Penalty Information Center published here just before the holiday weekend a short report titled "DPIC MID-YEAR REVIEW: Pandemic and Continuing Historic Decline Produce Record-Low Death Penalty Use in First Half of 2020."  Here are some highlights:

Introduction

The combination of the effects of the coronavirus pandemic and the continuing broad national decline in the use of capital punishment produced historically low numbers of new death sentences and executions in the first half of 2020.

Even before the pandemic, the U.S. was poised for its sixth consecutive year with 50 or fewer new death sentences and 30 or fewer executions.  At the midpoint of 2020, there had been 13 new death sentences, imposed in seven states, and six executions carried out by five historically high-execution states. Florida (4), California (3), and Texas had imposed multiple new death sentences, but only Texas (with 2) had carried out more than one execution....

First-Half 2020 Death Sentences

2016 through 2019 produced four of the five lowest death-sentencing years in the U.S. since the Supreme Court struck down existing death-penalty statutes in Furman v. Georgia in 1972.  With new death sentences already near historic lows and most capital trials and sentencings now suspended or delayed, 2020 is expected to produce the fewest death sentences of any year in the modern history of the U.S. death penalty....

Only two death sentences have been imposed since the pandemic began shutting down courts in mid-March.  Neither of those sentences — a trial before a three-judge panel in Ohio and a California trial court’s acceptance of a jury verdict issued in January — involved new jury action, nor did the last sentences imposed prior to the pandemic.

The last death sentences imposed before the widespread court closures were handed down by a Florida trial judge on March 13, who sentenced Jesse Bell and Barry Noetzel to death after they pled guilty and were permitted to waive their rights to counsel and a jury sentencing.  The next new death sentence came on May 18, when an Ohio three-judge panel sentenced Joel Drain to death. Drain had waived his right to a jury trial and sentence, presented no guilt defense and refused to present mitigating evidence in the penalty-phase of his trial.  The 66 days between those two death sentences was the longest the United States had gone without a new death sentence since 1973....

First-Half 2020 Executions

Midway through 2020, it appears that U.S. states are likely to carry out fewer executions than in any year since 1991, when there were 14 executions.  Of the 54 executions dates set for 2020, six executions have been carried out, with nine scheduled executions still pending.  The few jurisdictions that are attempting to carry out executions are outliers in both their criminal justice and public health policies, prioritizing immediately executing prisoners over public health and safety concerns and fair judicial process.  Eight executions have been stayed or rescheduled as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I am always grateful for how DPIC assembles and reports essential capital punishment data, but I find it notable that this report does not discuss  that the federal government may be poised to resume executions in the second half of 2020 thanks to key decisions by the DC Circuit and SCOTUS in the first half of 2020.  Though I doubt that the resumption of federal executions will dramatically impact the declining fate of the death penalty throughout the US, I do think the pending federal executions could prove to be one of the biggest death penalty stories of 2020 (and could even become a presidential campaign issue in the coming months).  It seems worth a mention.

July 6, 2020 at 05:21 PM | Permalink

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