In addition, the move to abolish the death penalty gained a 22nd state in 2020, and President-elect Joe Biden has said he will push for an end to federal executions. Prosecutors who said they would not pursue capital punishment also won a number of elections in large metropolitan areas last month, joining a wave of liberal prosecutors who had already declared opposition to the death penalty. The DPIC estimated the new prosecutors alone represent counties with 12 percent of the country’s death row population.
“This country has grown and evolved since the 1990s,” when executions and death sentences were at their peak, according to Robert Dunham, executive director of the DPIC. The reasons for the growing resistance to execution are numerous, Dunham said: moral opposition; the possibility of executing innocent people; the high cost of litigating capital cases; that it is not a deterrent; and a belief that “everything that’s bad about the criminal justice system is worse when it comes to capital punishment. People don’t trust the system to do it fairly.”
Experts acknowledge the coronavirus pandemic had an effect on executions and the number of death sentences issued in 2020, with courts closed for much of the year, though both numbers have plummeted in recent years. The number of death sentences imposed, which topped 300 for several years in the mid-1990s, was down to 34 last year. Dunham said that number stands at 18 this year, and even if two pending cases result in death sentences, the total would still be the lowest since 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment.
The number of executions peaked at 98 in 1999, and dropped to 35 by 2014 and now 17 in 2020. The number of people on death row in the United States, which was nearly 3,600 in the early 2000s, is now under 2,600, according to the DPIC. California has the largest death row population, more than 720, but it has not executed anyone since 2006. Only two states west of Texas, Arizona and Idaho, have carried out an execution in the past decade, the DPIC report said.
One driver in these trends is the federal government, which conducted more executions in the past six months of 2020 than under any other president in the 20th or 21st century, the DPIC reported. Until this year, there had not been a federal execution since 2003. Last year, Attorney General William P. Barr announced plans to resume federal executions, using a new lethal-injection procedure, one requiring only the drug pentobarbital. Barr’s original schedule was blocked by court challenges to the lethal-injection procedure, which was eventually upheld.
The Justice Department resumed federal executions in July, putting to death Daniel Lewis Lee, 47, who was convicted in 1999 of killing a family of three, including an 8-year-old girl.
Federal officials quickly carried out two more executions. By that week’s end, the Justice Department had carried out three executions in four days, matching the federal government’s total number of executions over the past three decades.
Barr continued scheduling executions after Biden was declared the winner of the presidential election, setting them during the transition period. Three federal executions are scheduled to take place in the week before Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20.
The Justice Department has defended the schedule, arguing that Barr was following the law in seeking to carry out death sentences, which have been sought and defended under presidents of both parties over the years. Sixty-two federal prisoners are on death row, according to the DPIC.
The department carried out two executions last week, including that of Brandon Bernard. Officials had also planned another federal execution for this month, but it was postponed. The scheduled execution of Lisa Montgomery, who would be the first woman executed by the federal government in nearly 70 years, was pushed to January after her lawyers said they contracted the coronavirus after traveling to meet with her.
But the push to reduce or eliminate capital punishment continued in the states when Colorado’s legislature passed a bill abolishing the death penalty, which Gov. Jared Polis (D) signed in March. “The death penalty cannot be, and never has been, administered equitably in the state of Colorado,” Polis said, noting the racial inequity of the death penalty. Seven of the 17 people executed in 2020 were either Black, Latino or Native American, while 13 of the 17 executions were for slayings of White people.
In addition to the 22 states that no longer allow the death penalty, 12 that do allow the death penalty have not executed anyone in at least 10 years, the DPIC found. Last month, prosecutors were elected in Los Angeles, New Orleans, Tucson, Portland, Ore., Orlando and Austin who said they will not seek capital punishment, in addition to prosecutors who have made similar declarations in Chicago, San Francisco, Boston and Philadelphia.
Five more people on death row were exonerated in 2020, bringing the total number of wrongly convicted people sentenced to death to 172 since 1973, according to the DPIC report. Those facts led Biden to declare he would work to pass a law eliminating the federal death penalty, “and incentivize states to follow the federal government’s example … because we cannot ensure we get death penalty cases right every time.”
Dunham said a confluence of the 2008 recession and the death of George Floyd in police custody in the spring have driven death penalty numbers down. During the recession, conservative lawmakers looking to cut spending “subjected the death penalty to the cost analysis reserved for social programs” and found it inefficient.
When calls for justice reform arose again this year, “with the now unmistakable evidence of endemic racial discrimination in the criminal legal system, you may have gotten to a critical point in considering reforms and in some jurisdictions considering abolition” of capital punishment, Dunham said.