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December 16, 2020

DPIC releases year-end report stating "Death Penalty Hits Historic Lows Despite Federal Execution Spree"

Death-sentences-by-yearThis new press release from the Death Penalty Information Center, titled "Executions and Death Sentences Drop to Historic Lows in 2020, even as Federal Government Ramps Up Executions," provides a three-page summary of the DPIC's 36-page year-end 2020 report on the administration of the death penalty in the United States.  The full reports carries this intricate full title "The Death Penalty in 2020: Year End Report; Death Penalty Hits Historic Lows Despite Federal Execution Spree; Pandemic, Racial Justice Movement Fuel Continuing Death Penalty Decline." Here is how the report's introduction starts:

2020 was abnormal in almost every way, and that was clearly the case when it came to capital punishment in the United States. The interplay of four forces shaped the U.S. death penalty landscape in 2020: the nation’s long-term trend away from capital punishment; the worst global pandemic in more than a century; nationwide protests for racial justice; and the historically aberrant conduct of the federal administration.  At the end of the year, more states had abolished the death penalty or gone ten years without an execution, more counties had elected reform prosecutors who pledged never to seek the death penalty or to use it more sparingly; fewer new death sentences were imposed than in any prior year since the Supreme Court struck down U.S. death penalty laws in 1972; and despite a six-month spree of federal executions without parallel in the 20th or 21st centuries, fewer executions were carried out than in any year in nearly three decades.

The historically low numbers of death sentences and executions were unquestionably affected by court closures and public health concerns related to the coronavirus.  But even before the pandemic struck, the death sentences and executions in the first quarter of the year had put the United States on pace for a sixth consecutive year of 50 or fewer new death sentences and 30 or fewer executions.  The execution numbers also were skewed by a rash of executions that marked the federal government’s death-penalty practices as an outlier, as for the first time in the history of the country, the federal government conducted more civilian executions than all of the states of the union combined.

The erosion of capital punishment at the state and county level continued in 2020, led by Colorado’s abolition of the death penalty.  Two more states — Louisiana and Utah — reached ten years with no executions. With those actions, more than two-thirds of the United States (34 states) have now either abolished capital punishment (22 states) or not carried out an execution in at least ten years (another 12 states). The year’s executions were geographically isolated, with just five states, four of them in the South, performing any executions this year.  The Gallup poll found public support for the death penalty near a half-century low, with opposition at its highest level since the 1960s.  Local voters, particularly in urban centers and college towns, rejected mass incarceration and harsh punishments, electing new anti-death-penalty district attorneys in counties constituting 12% of the current U.S. death-row population.

A majority (59%) of all executions this year were conducted by the federal government, which in less than six months carried out more federal civilian executions than any prior president in the 20th or 21st centuries, Republican or Democratic, had authorized in any prior calendar year.  The Trump administration performed the first lame-duck federal execution in more than a century, while scheduling more transition-period executions than in any prior presidential transition in the history of the United States.  The executions reflected systemic problems in the application of capital punishment and drew widespread opposition from prosecutors, victims’ families, Native American leaders, religious leaders, regulatory law experts, and European Union officials.  In addition to the legal issues, the executions also presented public health problems, likely sparking an outbreak in a federal prison, infecting members of the execution teams, and causing two federal defense attorneys to contract COVID-19.

Death sentences, which were on pace for sustained low levels prior to the pandemic, plunged to a record low of 18.  While the resumption of trials delayed by the pandemic may artificially increase the number of death verdicts over the next year or two, the budget strain caused by the pandemic and the need for courtroom space to conduct backlogged non-capital trials and maintaining a functioning court system may force states to reconsider the value and viability of pursuing expensive capital trials.

As I have done in past posts, I have reprinted here one of DPIC's graphics on number of death sentences imposed because I think that data may prove the most critical and consequential for the fate and future of the death penalty. Helpfully, the DPIC report has lots of other important data about a remarkable year. Ninth months ago in a post, I wondered aloud "Might COVID-19 ultimately bring an end to the death penalty in the United States?."  This DPIC report details that the death penalty is still alive, but it seems COVID has certainly contributed to capital punishment's extended decline.

December 16, 2020 at 10:13 AM | Permalink

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