A year that began with the U.S. Supreme Court striking down the death penalty in one of the most active capital punishment states ended with the country reaching modern lows in executions and death sentences, the most glaring signs yet about how the practice has dwindled in America today.
Still, even as capital punishment has declined in both sentencing and practice, there were also signs this year of its persistence from lawmakers, judges and the public, reminders that the death penalty is far from fading away.
The United States saw 20 executions this year, the fewest nationwide in 25 years. As noted here last week, this number has dropped from the modern peak of 98 executions in 1999, coming as states have struggled to obtain lethal injection drugs and halted executions in the face of court rulings.
But that tells only part of the story. There will be a total of 30 new death sentences this year, the lowest number in the modern era, according to a new report from the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington. That is the fewest new death sentences in a single year since 1972, when the U.S. Supreme Court effectively halted capital punishment by striking down sentencing statutes. (The justices reinstated the death penalty four years later.) To put that in perspective, in 1996, states across the country handed down 315 death sentences, the report states.
The numbers this year are part of “a consistent long-term trend” with a number of explanations, said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
“Fewer states authorize the death penalty than in the 1990s,” Dunham said. “There are fewer counties in those states that are pursuing capital punishment. Prosecutors in the counties that are pursuing capital punishment are pursuing it less frequently. And juries are returning death verdicts less frequently. The combination of all of these factors has reduced the number of death sentences.”
Dunham also pointed to court rulings against the practice, declining public support for it and cases where people on death row have been exonerated as other reasons why the death penalty is being used less often. But Dunham also pointed to outcomes on Election Day last month that he said showed “we are not at the point that the public is willing to dispense with the death penalty entirely.”
Nebraska lawmakers last year voted to abolish the death penalty, making it the 19th state in the country to abandon it, but voters last month decided to scrap that measure. California voters rejected a proposal that would have abolished the death penalty and approved one that would quicken the rate of executions (although a court put that on hold this week), while Oklahoma voters gave lawmakers there the ability to adopt “any method of execution not prohibited by the United States Constitution.”
However, none of these votes mean that executions are likely to resume in these places anytime soon. Nebraska has not executed an inmate since 1997, while California — home to the country’s largest death row — has not carried out an execution since 2006.
This year marked the first since 1994 that Oklahoma did not carry out any executions, but lethal injections are on hold there after authorities used the wrong drug to carry out an execution last year and then almost used the wrong drug months later. A grand jury report pilloried officials for what it described as several avoidable lapses, and officials there are still not seeking new execution dates in the wake of that.
Support for the death penalty has declined nationwide, although polls are split on precisely where public opinion is right now. A Pew Research Center survey this year found that the share of Americans supporting the death penalty had dropped below 50 percent, its lowest level since the 1970s. Meanwhile, a Gallup poll in October found that support remained at 60 percent, lower than the past few years but on par with where it was in 2013. But in both cases, the level of support is far below where it was in the 1990s, when four out of five Americans backed the practice.
Just five states carried out the country’s 20 executions this year, and almost all of them were concentrated in two places: Georgia, which executed nine inmates, and Texas, which executed seven. Even Texas, the country’s leader in capital punishment, was susceptible to the larger trends, as several executions have been stayed while other inmates have had execution dates changed, officials said. This year marked the first time since 1996 that Texas did not execute at least 10 inmates.
There were 336 days between the first and last executions in the United States in 2016, a gulf of nearly a year separating two lethal injections held hundreds of miles apart. In January, Florida carried out the first execution of the year, putting 53-year-old Oscar Bolin Jr. to death for killing Teri Lynn Matthews in 1986. This month, Alabama executed Robert Bert Smith Jr., 45, who was sentenced to death for killing Casey Wilson during a robbery in 1994.
In both cases, the U.S. Supreme Court was asked to get involved and declined, but there were key differences in what happened during and after, highlighting the fractious year in capital punishment. Days after Florida executed Bolin, the high court struck down Florida’s death penalty sentencing scheme, which ultimately froze capital punishment in the state for much of the year and led to an unusual year for the Sunshine State. Florida lawmakers rewrote the state’s scheme, and it was promptly struck down again by the state Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, after uncertainty swirled around the death penalty in Florida for much of the year, the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday said that the high court’s ruling meant that potentially hundreds of death-row inmates there could seek new sentences.
“The reason it’s declined in Florida is not because the governor doesn’t want it to be a top execution state,” O.H. Eaton Jr., a death penalty expert and retired Florida judge, said in an interview this week. “It’s just that the death penalty’s in such flux in Florida that there are no executions scheduled. And I don’t think there will be for a while.”
This month, the U.S. Supreme Court was asked to stop Alabama’s execution of Smith, but the deadlocked justices decided not to step in and he was executed by lethal injection. Media witnesses said that Smith struggled for breath during an execution that lasted for more than a half-hour, making this the latest execution involving the sedative midazolam that took longer than usual or saw inmates physically react during the process.
States have turned to midazolam and other chemicals amid a years-long shortage of lethal-injection drugs that has been prompted, in part, by European opposition to the death penalty. This has halted a supply of the chemicals, causing states to revamp their execution protocols — sometimes multiple times — to seek new drug combinations to keep carrying out executions. The Supreme Court had heard a case involving Oklahoma’s use of midazolam last year, and the justices upheld its use of the drug, although that case highlighted bitter divisions among the justices regarding the death penalty.
Drug companies have spoken out in recent years against the use of their chemicals in lethal injections, most recently Pfizer, the pharmaceutical giant that in May tightened restrictions on its drugs to further ensure they cannot be used in lethal injections. In an effort to obtain drugs, Virginia this year moved to shield the identities of those supplying lethal injection drugs, a move that has been undertaken by other states seeking these chemicals.
Ohio has been at the intersection of several of these trends, halting executions for what will turn out to be at least three years after it changed its lethal-injection protocol and sought new drugs. The state was planning to resume executions in January for the first time since a lethal injection in 2014 that lasted nearly a half-hour.
It is not clear whether Ohio will resume executions as planned. In response to a lawsuit challenging the secrecy law shielding the identities of whoever makes the state’s execution drugs, a judge this week stayed those executions. Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) then rescheduled those executions once again, pushing the first back to at least February.