WASHINGTON — The nation's rapidly
declining rate of executions has leveled off, but opponents of capital
punishment say the death penalty remains on borrowed time.
The execution Thursday of Alabama cop killer
Torrey McNabb was the 21st this year, marking the first time that
number has risen since 2009. The 2017 total could approach 30 before the
year is out, depending on last-minute legal battles.
ends a relatively steady drop in executions since 2009, when there were
52. Only three times has the annual number increased since executions
peaked at 98 in 1999.
Several factors have
contributed to this year's hiatus in the broader trend. Eight states
carried out executions, a spike from recent years. Among them were
Arkansas, which executed four prisoners over eight days
in April before its supply of lethal injection drugs expired, and
Florida, which had halted executions for 18 months after the Supreme
Court found its sentencing procedure unconstitutional.
executions this year have illustrated the problems opponents highlight
in their quest to end capital punishment. Claims of innocence and
requests for additional forensic testing went unheeded. Faced with
complaints from pharmaceutical companies, some states used secretive
methods to obtain drugs for lethal injections. And amid charges of
racial disparities, nearly all the murder victims were white.
another issue will be on display during oral arguments at the Supreme
Court next week: whether indigent defendants in capital cases must prove
they need more experienced lawyers and resources before they will be
Despite all those factors, death penalty
opponents say they're not worried about the slight uptick in executions.
They note that three-, five- and 10-year trends remain down.
seeing the last grasps of trying to hold on to the death penalty in
this country," said Heather Beaudoin, national organizer for Equal
Justice USA. "The fact that we may be up in numbers this year does not
Until this year, the number of
states carrying out executions had dropped from nine in 2013 to seven,
six and just five in 2016. Only about 16 of the nation's more than 3,000
counties dole out capital sentences regularly.
courts in Florida, Delaware and Connecticut recently struck down those
states' death penalty procedures, continuing a trend against capital
punishment. But voters staged a comeback of sorts last year, defeating
an abolition effort in California, restoring it to the books in Nebraska
and adding it to the state constitution in Oklahoma.
What remains of capital punishment these days is largely decades-old death sentences being carried out.
years ago was the height of the death sentencing era, and that's the
average time individuals are on death row before execution," said Ben
Cohen, a lawyer with the Capital Appeals Project in New Orleans. "The
long-term trend remains clearly aimed at replacing death sentences and
executions with life without parole."
A decline in
new death sentences, from about 300 annually in the 1990s to fewer than
50 per year, will continue to result in fewer executions in the future,
says Rob Smith, executive director of the Fair Punishment Project.
have people on death rows across the country who were put there 10
years ago, 20 years ago, 30 years ago by juries who would never return
that death sentence today and prosecutors who would never seek that
death sentence today,” Smith said.
Nevertheless, several legal challenges to lethal injection methods have failed since the Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that
states could use midazolam, a controversial sedative that had been
implicated in several botched executions. Alabama, Arkansas, Ohio and
Virginia are among states still using midazolam.
supply was about to expire in April when it sought to execute eight
inmates over a two-week period. Courts intervened in half those cases.
has happened is that states go on execution sprees,” said Robert
Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center,
citing Georgia in 2016 and Missouri in 2014-15.
last-minute appeals fail at the Supreme Court, which reinstated the
death penalty in 1976 after a four-year moratorium. But two years ago,
Justice Stephen Breyer argued that capital punishment is unreliable,
arbitrary and results in decades-long delays. For those reasons and
others, he said, "most places within the United States have abandoned
Breyer's dissent has encouraged a rash of
new cases contending that putting prisoners to death violates the
Constitution's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
national consensus has emerged that the death penalty is an
unacceptable punishment in any circumstance," appellate lawyer Neal
Katyal argues in seeking Supreme Court review in one such case, Hidalgo v. Arizona. "This court’s opinions, supported by reams of evidence, are trending unmistakably toward that consensus."
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