The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Executions, death sentences in U.S. reach historic lows in 2021

Report finds three states — Alabama, Texas and Oklahoma — account for most death penalty cases

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In 1999, 279 people were sentenced to death in the United States, and 98 prisoners were executed. That year saw the most executions since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976.

Things have changed.

In 2021, the number of people sentenced to death was down to 18, and the number of prisoners executed this year was 11. The number of executions was the fewest since 1988, and the number of death sentences equals last year’s total for the fewest in the modern era of the death penalty.

And when Virginia outlawed the death penalty in March, after having executed more prisoners than any other state, it created a majority of 26 states that have either banned capital punishment or imposed a moratorium on its use, according to statistics released Thursday by the Death Penalty Information Center.

Virginia abolishes the death penalty, becoming the first Southern state to ban its use

The numbers marked a continuing decline in America’s desire to execute convicted murderers. A Gallup poll from earlier this year found public support for the death penalty at a 50-year low. Although 80 percent of those surveyed in 1994 supported capital punishment, this year only 54 percent said they were “in favor of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder.”

“There’s a consistent national trend moving away from the death penalty,” said Robert Dunham, the center’s executive director. He cited two major factors: “There’s been a paradigm shift about punishment in general, a social shift away from excessive punishment, and there’s been this growing awareness about flaws with the death penalty, in particular,” whether it’s the wrongful conviction of defendants, the racial disparities in its use or the high cost of the trial and appeals process.

New research by the center found that 186 prisoners since 1973 have been exonerated after being sentenced to die. “We now know for every 8.3 executions, there’s an exoneration,” Dunham said. “That’s an appalling failure rate. If we read that about any other public policy, it would not be tolerated.”

Dunham added: “It is now unquestionably true that people who were innocent have been executed, and their innocence has never been discovered.”

The center found that the death penalty is becoming geographically isolated, with just three states — Alabama, Oklahoma and Texas — accounting for a majority of both death sentences and executions last year. In 2021, Texas and the federal government — which executed 13 prisoners during the last six months of the Trump administration — both performed three executions, while Oklahoma had two and Missouri, Alabama and Mississippi each had one. There were no executions west of Texas for a seventh straight year.

In Virginia, the first Southern state to abolish the death penalty, and Utah, where a bipartisan bill to abolish will be considered next year, Dunham said that “one of the big developments in both of those states was a combination of prosecutors supporting abolition as well as family members of murder victims.” In Virginia, the daughter of a slain sheriff’s deputy told lawmakers that family members are retraumatized by the appeals process and do not experience solace when an execution takes place, as it did for the killer of Cpl. Eric Sutphin.

Daughter of slain sheriff’s deputy asks Va. governor to stop execution of her father’s killer

“We are seeing more and more family members saying that,” Dunham said, “and more and more prosecutors listening.”

There was continued evidence of racial disparity in capital punishment, the center’s report found. Of the 18 people sentenced to death this year, six were Black and four were Latino. The race of the victim seemed relevant, too, the report found: 14 of the 18 cases involved White victims, and no White person was sentenced to death for any murder that did not involve at least one White victim.

Since 1976, 55 percent of those executed have been White, 34 percent Black and 8.4 percent Hispanic, while 75 percent of the victims have been White, compared with 16 percent who were Black and 7 percent who were Hispanic.

Intellectual impairment was also an issue. The center found that of the 11 people executed in 2021, 10 of them had one or more significant impairments, including mental illness, brain injury, intellectual disability or chronic serious childhood trauma.

Dunham revealed another finding by the center: About half of the people on death row in the United States were sent there by about 1.2 percent of the counties in the United States.

“What the numbers tell us,” Dunham said, “is the rate at which death sentences are imposed has nothing to do with murder rates and nothing to do with the severity of murders in a location. It has everything to do with who is making the decision about whether to pursue the death penalty. So one of the biggest contributors to the decline in these outlier, aggressive counties is reform prosecutors.”

Prosecutors in Philadelphia, Los Angeles and other big jurisdictions have declared that they will no longer seek capital punishment.

Four counties in Texas — Harris, Dallas, Tarrant and Bexar — and Oklahoma County in Oklahoma have accounted for 20 percent of all executions since 1976. Oklahoma County, where Oklahoma City is located, has carried out 42 executions, more than twice as many as St. Louis County, Mo., with the next-highest total.

“That tells us these are clear outliers,” Dunham said. “It also tells us how much these outliers distort the system.”

The move for social justice — particularly after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and as awareness of racial imbalance in the justice system has grown — has combined with citizens watching states such as South Carolina and Arizona that continue to push for executions even as state courts have prevented them, Dunham said.

In South Carolina, prosecutors twice tried to schedule executions without first obtaining the execution drugs, and prosecutors in Arizona tried to speed up the appeals process to execute prisoners before the drugs expired.

“It’s this kind of extreme conduct,” Dunham said, “that is having long-term effects on the public’s view of the death penalty. Even if people support the death penalty in the abstract, they are losing faith in the ability to carry it out properly.”