Death Penalty in Decline

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A guard holds open the door to one of San Quentin State Prison’s death rows in California.
Source: Paige St. John, “A Revealing Look at California’s Death Row,” latimes.com, Jan. 5, 2016

US states carried out 22 executions and imposed 33 new death penalty sentences in 2019, according to a Dec. 17 report from the Death Penalty Information Center. By the end of the year, the organization expected no more executions, but projected two to four more new sentences. 2019 was the fifth year with fewer than 30 executions and 50 new death sentences.

Executions were at the second-lowest number since 1991; the lowest number was 20 executions in 2016. New death sentences were the second-lowest since 1972. The only year with fewer new sentences was 2016 with 31.

Texas carried out nine executions in 2019, the most of any state, followed by Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia (three each), Florida (two), and South Dakota and Missouri (one each). None of the other 23 states with the death penalty executed anyone, including Oregon, Pennsylvania, and California, which currently have moratoriums on the death penalty.

Eleven states imposed new death penalty sentence in 2019: Florida (7), Ohio (6), Texas (4), Alabama (3), California (3), North Carolina (3), Pennsylvania (2), South Carolina (2), Arizona (1), Georgia (1), and Oklahoma (1).

New Hampshire became the 21st state to abolish the death penalty and California Governor Gavin Newsom imposed a moratorium on executions. Additionally, 2019 was the first time in 34 years that the majority of Americans supported life in prison instead of the death penalty, according to Gallup.

According to Pew Research Center, 11 states have the death penalty (even if a moratorium has been imposed) but have not carried out an execution in over a decade: New Hampshire (the last execution was in 1939), Kansas (1965), Wyoming (1992), Colorado (1997), Oregon (1997), Pennsylvania (1999), California (2006), Montana (2006), Nevada (2006), North Carolina (2006), and Kentucky (2008). Six other states haven’t used the death penalty in more than five years: Idaho, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Utah.

The last federal execution was in 2003, but Attorney General William Barr announced plans to reinstate the federal death penalty this year and scheduled five executions. The Supreme Court put those executions on hold on Dec. 6, 2019 to allow for a lower court ruling about whether the execution protocol was constitutional.

Visit our 2020 election site to learn what the presidential candidates think about the death penalty.

Discussion Questions – Things to Think About
1. Should the death penalty be legal? Why or why not?

2. Should the US federal government resume use of the death penalty? Why or why not?

3. Which is the more appropriate sentence: the death penalty or life in prison? For which crimes? Explain your answer.

Sources:

Ariane de Vogue and David Shortell, “Supreme Court Blocks Justice Department from Restarting Federal Executions Next Week,” cnn.com, Dec. 6, 2019

Death Penalty Information Center, “The Death Penalty in 2019: Year End Report,” deathpenaltyinfo.org, Dec. 17, 2019

John Gramlich, “California Is One of 11 States That Have the Death Penalty but Haven’t Used It in More Than a Decade,” pewresearch.org.

Jeffrey M. Jones, “Americans Now Support Life in Prison over Death Penalty,” gallup.com, Nov. 25, 2019

Mariel Padilla, “6 Figures That Tell the Story of the Death Penalty in America,” nytimes.com, Dec. 17, 2019

Kristine Phillips, “Justice Department Resumes Capital Punishment after Nearly Two Decades, Orders Executions of Five Inmates,” usatoday, July 25, 2019