Criminal Justice

The Death Penalty Continued Its Downward Trend in 2021

The Trump administration's revival appeared to be an outlier. Executions are becoming more and more rare.


The authorities executed just 11 prisoners in 2021—the U.S.'s lowest total in recent history. It was the seventh consecutive year that fewer than 30 death row inmates were executed.

According to a December report published by the Death Penalty Information Center, we're also seeing big plunges in death sentences for those newly convicted of capital crimes. Only 18 people were sentenced to death last year, matching the number sentenced in 2020.

Despite the uptick in homicides and gun violence during the past two years, there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of pressure to reverse the trend toward fewer executions. Indeed, Virginia, the state that has executed the most prisoners throughout American history, formally ended the use of the death penalty in 2021. Even before ending the practice, the state hadn't executed anybody since 2017. Twenty-three states have now stopped using the death penalty.

There was one major exception to the recent trend of fewer executions. Under President Donald Trump, the U.S. Department of Justice began executing federal death row inmates in 2020. Before that, there hadn't been a federal execution since 2003. In the final six months of Trump's term, 13 federal death row inmates were executed, the final three in January 2021, just days before Trump left office.

When President Joe Biden was on the campaign trail, he promised to support an end to the federal death penalty. There have been no executions since he took office. But this moratorium is eminently reversible unless Congress actually passes a law ending the practice. Similarly, Gov. Gavin Newsom has a moratorium in place for California, which has the most inmates on death row (at 699). California hasn't executed an inmate since 2006, though prosecutors can (and do) still seek death sentences there for capital crimes.

Elsewhere, Oregon's Supreme Court ruled in October that a 2019 law that narrows capital crimes to four specific types of aggravated murders (terrorist acts that kill two or more people, premeditated murder of children, prison murders by those already incarcerated for murder, and premeditated murders of correctional officers) should be applied retroactively. This, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, has the potential to resentence all 24 people currently on death row in Oregon. Meanwhile, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has maintained an existing moratorium put into place in 2011.

There are now pushes in Ohio and Utah to abolish the death penalty in those states, and the Death Penalty Information Center notes the bipartisan nature of the two proposals. Utah's Republican-led effort is supported by four county prosecutors (two Democrats and two Republicans). In a group letter, the prosecutors wrote that "the death penalty in Utah today is a permanent and irreversible sentence within an imperfect system. It fails to deter crime. It retraumatizes victims. It disproportionately applies to minorities. It is expensive. And it makes plea negotiations coercive." The bill would replace the state's death sentence with a 45-years-to-life prison sentence.

2021 provided two examples of inmates cleared of the crimes that had put them on death row. In January, Eddie Lee Howard was exonerated for a murder after spending 26 years on death row in Mississippi. Also in Mississippi, Sherwood Brown was exonerated of a triple murder in August. He too spent 26 years on death row. In each case, forensics malpractice played a role in the men's convictions; both were ultimately cleared by DNA evidence.

The Death Penalty Information Center has also calculated the additional costs to taxpayers when people who had been sentenced to death due to prosecutor or police misconduct sue and are awarded settlements or damages. The cases they analyzed for 2021 added up to $78 million in court awards and settlements. Most of that money went to half-brothers Henry McCollum and Leon Brown, who were coerced into confessing to rape and murder with fabricated evidence when they were teens and served 31 years before being exonerated by DNA evidence in 2014. They were awarded $75 million in damages in May.

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  1. It may eventually die off. Except for peaceful protesters and Democratic Party controlled nursing homes.

    1. Democratic Party controlled nursing homes.

      I was just gonna say that I assume we aren't counting the ~15,000 people Cuomo killed by locking them in retirement homes in the downward trend.

      1. You know people like him including Gretchen Whitmer get special passes for things like that.

  2. Especially with Dexter in semi-retirement.

  3. Ride the Lightning

  4. That's another reason for Koch-funded libertarians to vote Democrat — they agree with our f***-the-police, soft-on-crime #EmptyThePrisons agenda.


    1. Phrasing!
      It's not "soft on crime" it's "compassionate for the disadvantaged, who only turned to a life of crime because they were hungry".

      1. Indeed....hungry enough to murder someone.

  5. I actually know quite a few inmates from "Condemned Row" as it used to be called...All used to be POS and deserved to die.

    But in California it was taking so long they died of old age...I hope they close down death Row at the Q.

    Most of these inmates have been hiding and living great on DR, they get all sorts of benefits and care as DR inmates.

    We probably spend close to a million per inmate on DR...They get alllllllllllll sorts of extras.

    Close it down and send them back to the pens and they will be NOTHING...Most inmates have zero respect for them and once they are no longer single cell they are now future victims.

    Most could never fight and many are actually afraid of them closing DR since many fear the repercussions.

    This is hilarious...I will tell you that NO ONE has KILLED more inmates through their pressure than their own lawyers.

    Many of these inmates would have been dead decades ago except for the high care that they receive.

    Now that they are just a regular inmate...They are at the same mercies as all the rest...No more extra protection.

    1. The DoC could put Suge Knight in charge of Death Row and that might cause it to close.

  6. Make prosecutorial misconduct in death penalty cases a death penalty offense. Problem solved.

    1. There already is.

      Vigilantes refuse to enforce it.

  7. Did COVID make it too dangerous for the executioners to show up for work? They couldn't zoom it in like the teachers did?

    Seems like there are a bunch of people on death row still. They just didn't get around to it yet.

  8. I thought they just outsourced the death penalty to Our Local Heroes In Blue and certain Capitol Police Lieutenants...

  9. Radical, anti-American Democrat policies are the Death Penalty for Liberty. F*ck them all.

  10. So will Darrel Brooks, when he is convicted of murdering five people including children get life in prison or the death penalty. Keep in mind he is already a convicted felon.
    Animals like him do not belong in society. That's why the death penalty. Get rid of scum like him for good. It's why we have keep those who would harm the public away from the public so they can't. They belong in prison. Locked away from the rest of society where they can no longer cause harm.
    I would also include child molesters and those involved in grooming and running child pedo rings. Kill them all, take them out and shoot them in the back of the head. It's the only thing they deserve.

  11. Anybody convicted of any violent or property crime deserves to be executed as they have proven they cannot be trusted to live in civilized society by violating the natural rights of others (and thus should have no expectation of respect for their own natural rights, including the right to life). Less death penalty is not a good thing.
    Lax, catch and release law enforcement is as good as saying they will commit crimes again. Lifers are a complete waste of millions of taxpayer dollars per inmate. Executions is what actually makes sense when you start thinking instead of emoting.
    We shouldn't be executing less. What we should be doing is executing anybody currently incarcerated for violent crimes and let the rest with BS crimes like non violent drug offenses free. And we should be sending police with warrants to track down any previously released violent convicts, arrest them and execute them retroactively. And of course any new convicts convicted of violent or property crimes should be sentenced to one and only one punishment, execution.
    If we had a sane policy like that, all the BLM martyrs whose demise sparked violent riots and arson would have been executed long ago. Same with many of the BLM and antifa terrorists and the rioters, looters and arsonists who burned cities who already have criminal records. If we had a policy like that instead of the moronic look the other way for thefts of under $1000, the current surge in theft would stop overnight.
    People respond to incentives and disincentives. Libertarians understand this in economics. Why is it so hard for many libertarians to understand this in law enforcement?

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