The good news for opponents of the death penalty is that its use in the United States continued to decline in 2022. The bad news is that many of the executions that did take place appear to have been botched by officials who subjected prisoners to cruel torment.
Those are the main takeaways from the Death Penalty Information Center's (DPIC) annual year-end report. It shows that American states are increasingly turning away from executions, but that in those states where capital punishment still happens, there's been a turn toward cruelty and secrecy in the relevant government agencies.
Six states—Oklahoma, Alabama, Texas, Missouri, Arizona, and Mississippi—executed 18 people in 2022. That's an increase over the 11 people executed in 2021, but both numbers are low relative to the last decade. For eight consecutive years, states have performed fewer than 30 executions annually and issued fewer than 50 new death penalty sentences annually. Federal executions were halted entirely when President Joe Biden took office.
The downturn may not be permanent. Oklahoma halted executions in 2015 temporarily after a series of problems with the drugs that led to one man groaning and struggling as the drugs took hold in 2014 and a case in 2015 where they received the wrong drug entirely. In 2020, Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt announced Oklahoma would restart executions using those very same drugs. In 2021, Oklahoma executed its first two inmates in years. During the first of those executions, John Marion Grant reportedly convulsed and vomited before he died. In 2022, Oklahoma executed five inmates, making the state responsible for nearly a third of all executions.
And if the state gets its way, there will be many more to come in 2023. In June, Oklahoma Attorney General John O'Connor started planning 25 executions over the next few years. According to DPIC, the state has 11 planned for next year and 10 in 2024.
Richard Glossip is among those inmates, currently scheduled for execution in February. Glossip has become something of a national cause because he's on death row for a murder he personally did not commit. He is accused of allegedly masterminding the 1997 murder of Barry Van Treese by convincing Justin Sneed to do it with a promise of splitting Van Treese's money. Sneed confessed and pointed the finger at Glossip and avoided death row. Glossip has been fighting for his innocence and has managed to draw several Republican lawmakers on board who support the death penalty but are concerned that Glossip may be innocent. Stitt has permitted stays of execution to allow Glossip to pursue appeals.
But in November, Oklahoma's criminal appeals court denied motions by Glossip's attorneys to get a new evidentiary hearing. Stitt could ultimately decide to commute Glossip's sentence. In 2021 he commuted the sentence of Julius Jones, who, like Glossip, convinced several Republicans and the state's Pardon and Parole Board that there was enough doubt about his guilt to stay the executioner's hand.
In Texas, mercy came in 2022 to Melissa Lucio, convicted in 2007 and sentenced to death for allegedly killing her 2-year-old child. She has insisted that the child's death was from an accidental fall and not abuse. Just days before her scheduled execution she was given a reprieve by the state's Court of Criminal Appeals to analyze the evidence and see if there were enough problems with her conviction to justify a new trial.
Elsewhere, the continued use of lethal injections cause continued problems. The DPIC notes that seven of the attempted executions showed problems with the process itself in safely injecting the prisoners. In Alabama, the execution of Joe Nathan James in July was delayed by three hours. When it was over, it appeared as though it took many efforts by the prison team to find a vein, leading to many puncture wounds and a cut on his arm. The state insisted that nothing out of the ordinary happened.
But then, in September and November, two other Alabama executions were called off because corrections officials couldn't find the proper veins in time to inject the lethal drugs. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey called for a "top-to-bottom review" of the execution process. Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall insisted this was not a moratorium. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee ordered a moratorium on executions this year and halted a pending execution after discovering that officials had failed to properly test the drugs they were using for impurities or contamination.
"After 40 years, the states have proven themselves unable to carry out lethal injections without the risk that it will be botched. The families of victims and prisoners, other execution witnesses, and corrections personnel should not be subjected to the trauma of an execution gone bad," said Robert Dunham, DPIC's Executive Director, in a summary of the DPIC year-end report.
On the positive side of the ledger, outgoing term-limited Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced in December that she was commuting the sentences of the 17 people on death row to life in prison. The state has had a governor-ordered moratorium on the death penalty for years, but the penalty is enshrined in the state's constitution for certain crimes. Brown's replacement, Gov. Elect Tina Kotek, has promised to extend the moratorium.
"As the systemic flaws of the death penalty have become clearer and more pronounced, it is being regularly employed by just a handful of outlier jurisdictions that pursue death sentences and executions with little regard for human rights concerns, transparency, fairness, or even their own ability to successfully carry it out," the DPIC warns.