Death Penalty

Death Penalty Sentences in America Continue Decline

Only 20 were executed in 2016, the fewest since 1991.

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execution statistics
Death Penalty Information Center

Voters in several states may have given a thumbs up to the continued application of the death penalty in November, but actual sentences and executions are continuing a massive decline across the country.

That's the latest from the year-end report by the Death Penalty Information Center, a D.C.-based non-profit devoted to analysis and reports about the use of executions in the country.

The two most important stats (shown also in the graph to the right): Not only are actual executions down from a peak of 98 a year to 20 a year; even sentencing somebody to death has dropped significantly from a peak of 315 a year (in 1996) to 30 this year.

The 20 executions were confined to just five states: Georgia, Texas, Alabama, Missouri, and Florida. The report notes that even in these execution states, actual death penalty sentences are declining. Texas saw only four new death penalty sentences in 2016. Juries in Georgia and Missouri didn't impose any new death penalty sentences at all this year.

Voters in three states—Nebraska, California, and Oklahoma—voted to maintain or enshrine the death penalty as a valid sentence for crimes. But despite those votes, the Death Penalty Information Center also noted that support for the death penalty in polls continues its decline from a high point in the mid-1990s. For the first time in 45 years, support for the death penalty has dropped in polls below 50 percent. More still support the death penalty than oppose (49 percent to 42 percent), but the gap is closing.

The Death Penalty Information Center also took note of an election trend that we've also highlighted here at Reason: Voters are bouncing prosecutors with reputations for attempting to implement harsh sentences or practices:

Prosecutors in four of the 16 counties that imposed the most death sentences in the U.S. between 2010 and 2015 were defeated by candidates who expressed personal opposition to the death penalty or pledged to institute reforms in the county's death penalty practices.

The report takes note of vicious Florida prosecutor Angela Corey, who was blown out in her primary by a candidate who is now promising to build a "conviction integrity unit" to go back and look for previous wrongful convictions. Corey wasn't the only prosecutor to get bounced in this new trend:

In the November general election, incumbent Harris County, Texas District Attorney Devon Anderson lost to challenger Kim Ogg. Harris County has carried out more executions than any other county in the U.S., and Ogg said during the course of the campaign that the death penalty had created "a terrible image for our city [Houston] and our county." She pledged that, "[u]nder an Ogg administration, you will see very few death penalty prosecutions."

Similarly, reform candidate Andrew Warren defeated incumbent Hillsborough County, Florida State Attorney Mark Ober, whom public defenders said had been seeking death in 20% of all murder cases, overburdening their office to a "critical point" at which it might not be able to take more cases. Warren said that "[o]ur use of the death penalty needs to be fair, consistent, and rare." He has proposed the creation of a conviction integrity unit to identify and redress wrongful convictions in Hillsborough County.

The report takes note of important judicial trends and decisions that may continue the death penalty's decline. Florida's Supreme Court ruled its system of sentencing defendants to death was unconstitutional for allowing non-unanimous juries to make the call. The U.S. Supreme Court had previously struck down Florida's death penalty for giving judges—not juries—too much control over the determination. The 19-page report details many statistical and procedural concerns about how the death sentence gets handed down and now the increasing secrecy by states concealing the drug cocktails they're using to execute people.

Read the full report here.

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  1. Is that counting death by cop?

  2. Officially executed by the state.

    1. These numbers are akin to corporation bragging about EBITDA financials.

      GAAP adjusted numbers not so rosy.

  3. California has far and away the largest death row population at 741, but they have not performed an execution in a decade.

    Also, inb4 “some people just need killt”

    1. Some people do need kilt. Unfortunately, the state has no reliable ability to identify them.

      1. Scotsmen?

      2. capital murderers have been properly identified in nearly countless cases.

  4. …support for the death penalty in polls continues its decline from a high point in the mid-1990s.

    So what was going on in the mid 90’s that everyone was so in hysterics over crime that we needed that terrible crime bill? Was it people finally getting around to seeing Stone Cold with Brian Bosworth?

    1. Dungeons & Dragons

      1. Don’t forget backwards satanic lyrics.

          1. ^This^ – Also see Nancy Grace.
            I remember arguing with my then GF about it-she was in every way a typical northeastern proggie, except she was very much in favor of “sending ’em to the chair”. When I asked her about it, she thought juries were too dumb to properly sentence murderers and they would get back out one day. Apparently, she didn’t think that this could go the other way.

            1. since 1973, we have allowed

              16,000 innocents to be murdered by those KNOWN murderers we have allowed to murder, again – recidivist murderers (1).

              and

              400,000 innocents to be murdered by those known criminals that we have allowed to harm, again – recidivist criminals (1).

              1) The Death Penalty: Saving More Innocent Lives
              http //prodpinnc.blogspot com/2013/10/the-death-penalty-do-innocents-matter html

  5. conviction integrity unit

    Govt loves second guessing itself.

    1. Don’t you get it? Only selfless government-funded unaccountable bureaurcrats can check the work of selfless, gvoernment-funded bureuacrats.

  6. Heh, so this guy is a little late to the party?

    We need to declare a war on drugs!

    1. “I’ve been in a coma for the last 60 years. What’d i miss?”

      1. The libertarian moment.

        But you could have blinked and missed that.

      2. “Do Sonny and Cher still have that stupid show?”

        1. “Betty White’s back.”

          “Cool, cool. What about the rest of the Golden Girls?”

          “They’re all dead, man.”

          1. Strom Thurmond’s plutonium RTG finally gave out, so he’s ‘officially’ dead now.

      3. “Have you seen Demolition Man? Oh. Right. Well, that sort of happened.”

      4. Is Captain and Tennille still making hit records?

      5. “I sure could go for a smoke and a Big Gulp!”

      6. “Listen, Citizen X, even though it’s on company time, I don’t mind explaining to you what’s happened over the last 60 years, but Jesus Christ take that adding machine off your desk and put out that cigarette!”

    2. Gimme one of those Big Macs with the hot side hot, and the cold side cold.

      1. Wasn’t that Burger King?

        1. Never mind, I googled it.

  7. So the movement to abolish state executions is progressing.

  8. Some Reality: Why the fewest death sentences in 40 years:

    It has nothing to do with lack of death penalty support.

    When you combine reductions of:

    1) both murders and robberies, by far, the most common death penalty cases, robbery/murders, and

    2) the other, significant drops in all other death penalty eligible murders, that account for the overwhelming majority of the reduction in death sentences, plus

    3) 7 states have ended the death penalty and

    4) there have been several important legal cases which have limited the application of the death penalty, removing numbers of, previously, death penalty eligible crimes,

    and

    5) It appeals probable, if not likely, that prosecutors are aware that many judges will not allow executions, making frustration and practicality additional reasons for some prosecutors to seek fewer death sentences.

  9. “…The report notes that even in these execution states, actual death penalty sentences are declining…”
    Perhaps the reason is that the ones who normally would generate these sentences have somewhat gotten the message, and are not committing the heinous crimes that would win them the Big Casino.

  10. Why the fewest death sentences in 40 years:

    It has nothing to do with lack of death penalty support.

    When you combine reductions of:

    1) both murders and robberies, by far, the most common death penalty cases, robbery/murders, and

    2) the other, significant drops in all other death penalty eligible murders, that account for the overwhelming majority of the reduction in death sentences, plus

    3) 7 states have ended the death penalty and

    4) there have been several important legal cases which have limited the application of the death penalty, removing numbers of, previously, death penalty eligible crimes,

    and

    5) It appears likely that prosecutors are, by now, very aware that many judges will not allow executions, making frustration and practicality additional reasons for some prosecutors to seek fewer or no death sentences.

  11. Corey being voted out had nothing to do with the death penalty, just as with Anderson’s ouster, as was very obvious. I haven’t looked at the other two district atty races, but, based upon those first two, I venture their ousters had little, if anything, to do with the death penalty.

    It appears Anderson was responsible for seeking 5-6 death sentences in the little over 3 years she was in office, or less than 2 per year. It hardly seems like there was any over prosecution of those cases. It seems unlikely that her successor, Ogg, finds that excessive, as she has, always, supported the death penalty.

    It’s pretty solid when 12 out of the 16 prosecutors, or 75% of the “outlier” death penalty prosecutors, were reelected.

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