Death Penalty Use and Support Near Record Lows

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Eight men who were scheduled to be executed in Apr. 2017 by Arkansas; four received stays of execution.
Source: Matthew Haag and Richard Fausset, “Arkansas Rushes to Execute 8 Men in the Space of 10 days,” nytimes.com, Mar. 3, 2017

Overall use and public support of the death penalty is in decline. As of Nov. 8, 2017, 23 people were executed in the United States in 2017, the second-lowest number since 1991. 39 people are expected to be sentenced to death by the end of 2017, making it the second-lowest number since 1976, the year when capital punishment was declared constitutional again by the US Supreme Court.

Since the death penalty was legalized again in 1976 by the US Supreme Court, 1,465 people have been executed. Texas has accounted for 545 executions, over a third of the nation’s total. Harris County, Texas, which contains Houston, is called the “death penalty capital of the world” and the “buckle of the American death belt” because 126 people have been executed there since 1976, more than any US state except the county’s home state of Texas. However, in 2017, no one was executed in Harris County, making it the first year since 1985 that the county hasn’t carried out a capital punishment sentence. Additionally, no one has been sentenced to death in Harris County in three years.

Between Jan. 1, 2017 and Nov. 8, 2017, 23 men were executed in eight states. The men were 47 years old on average, and between the ages of 35 and 75. All of the men were executed via lethal injection, nine via a one-drug injection (Pentobarbital) and 14 via a three-drug injection (midazolam or etomidate), after spending an average of 19.5 years on death row (between eight and 34 years individually).

In peak years since 1976, there were 98 executions (1999) and 315 new death sentences (1996). Of the 31 states in which capital punishment is legal, executions were carried out in eight and 14 imposed new death sentences. In 2016, the only year with fewer executions since 1976 than 2017, 20 men were executed. A woman was last executed in 2015.

Rebecca Hersher, NPR reporter, stated: “Death sentences and executions have been declining steadily since the mid-1990s. But 2016 also generated seemingly contradictory information about how the public views capital punishment. Even as jurors have increasingly voted for life in prison instead of execution, voters in three states rejected propositions that would have eliminated the death penalty.”

Public support of capital punishment has declined to 55%, the lowest level since 1972, and significantly lower than the 80% peak approval rating in 1994, according to Gallup. Pew Research puts public support at 49%, with Republicans (72%) favoring its use more than Independents (45%) and Democrats (34%).

Also in 2017, Florida now requires a unanimous jury to impose the death penalty, and Alabama has disallowed judges from imposing capital punishment when the jury voted for life imprisonment.

Robert Dunham, Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center, stated, “The groups that were thought to be automatic death penalty supporters are no longer automatic death penalty supporters. The issue is becoming less partisan in that now almost a third of sponsors of death penalty abolition bills are Republicans. And the states in which we are seeing more and more activity in terms of abolition are red states.”


Sources:

Keri Blakinger, “Support for Death Penalty in U.S. Declining,” sfchronicle.com, Oct. 29, 2017

Death Penalty Information Center, deathpenaltyinfo.org, Dec. 11, 2017

Camila Domonoske and Richard Gonzales, “Use of the Death Penalty in U.S. Near a 25-Year Low, Report Finds,” npr.org, Dec. 14, 2017

Jeffrey M. Jones, “U.S. Death Penalty Support Lowest since 1972,” gallup.com, Oct. 26, 2017

Phil McCausland, “Why Texas’ ‘Death Penalty Capital of the World’ Stopped Executing People,” nbcnews.com, Dec. 16, 2017

Baxter Oliphant, “Support for Death Penalty Lowest in More Than Four Decades,” pewresearch.org, Sep. 29, 2016

Pete Williams, “2017 Brings Second-Fewest Death Sentences and Executions,” nbcnews.com, Dec. 14, 2017