The death penalty is on the decline in the United States in every conceivable category. Fewer states execute inmates, fewer executions are carried out and fewer people are sentenced to death in the first place.
This year, as executions went awry in high-profile ways, this clear trend continued. The United States executed 35 inmates in 2014, the smallest number in two decades. And the number of inmates sentenced to death is projected to be 72, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, which would be fewer than a quarter of the number of death sentences handed down in the mid-1990s.
“Not every year will show declines in every measure, but the overall pattern has been away from the death penalty,” the Death Penalty Information Center said its annual report, which was released early Thursday morning.
As a sign of how much of the country has shifted away from the practice, four out of five executions were carried out in just three states: Texas, Missouri and Florida. A total of seven states carried out executions, which is also significantly down from the 20 states that executed inmates in 1999.
“The traditional problems with the death penalty persisted in 2014,” the report stated.
The most consistent problem continues to involve the drugs used to carry out the executions. In recent years, as states have had trouble obtaining the drugs that were typically used until 2010, they have scrambled to find other drugs. (They have also contemplated using other methods to carry out executions, including the electric chair, the gas chamber and the firing squad.) This has resulted in what the Death Penalty Information Center report called an “experiment with lethal injection drugs,” something exemplified by the four different drug combinations used in the first four executions this year.
States have also been using drug cocktails that have not been previously utilized, which cropped up in two of the three executions that were problematic enough to draw public notice this year. Ohio’s execution of Dennis McGuire in January took nearly 25 minutes, and McGuire snorted and gasped before he died; his children filed a lawsuit saying that he suffered during the execution. He was put to death with a combination of midazolam and hydromorphone, a pairing that had not been used in an execution before. In July, Arizona used the same drug combination when it executed Joseph R. Wood III, but he gasped and snorted for nearly two hours (during which he was given 15 doses of each drug) before dying.
An Oklahoma execution drew worldwide criticism after the inmate, Clayton Lockett, kicked and writhed before his execution was halted, but he ultimately died a short time later. This execution involved a series of errors by the team carrying out the lethal injection, problems outlined by a state investigation that found poor planning, issues with the IV delivering the drugs and communication failures.
In addition to problems with how executions were carried out, the new report also highlights exonerations in four states, pointing to another common criticism of the death penalty: Its permanence, which pairs uncomfortably with the obvious history of people being wrongly convicted and eventually cleared. (Just this week, a judge in South Carolina threw out a teenager’s murder conviction 70 years after the 14-year-old boy was put to death.)
“Seven former death row inmates were exonerated this year, the most since 2009,” the report states. “Two men were freed in North Carolina, one each in Louisiana and Florida, and three in Ohio.”
As of Oct. 1, there were more than 3,000 people on death row, according to the report, and this number has fallen every year since 2001.
California has more inmates on death row than any other two states combined, something that has not gone unnoticed. Earlier this year, a federal judge called the California death penalty system unconstitutional, saying that the system is riddled with so many delays that it is “completely dysfunctional.” The state has executed 13 people since 1976 and has not executed anyone since 2006; between 1997 and 2013, Texas never executed fewer than 13 people each year.