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In a shift, the U.S. was not among the world’s leaders in executions last year

The dramatic decline in executions across the United States last year meant that for the first time in a decade, this country was not among the world’s leaders in carrying out criminal death sentences.

The United States executed 20 inmates in 2016, the lowest number in a quarter-century, and imposed fewer death sentences than it has in more than four decades. According to Amnesty International’s annual examination of the death penalty worldwide, the drop in executions meant that the United States was not among the top five countries to carry out death sentences.

The 20 executions in the United States last year put the country at seventh on the Amnesty list, trailing China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan and Egypt. The United States was considerably behind the other countries, some of which Amnesty says carried out thousands of executions (China) or hundreds (Iran). The dip in death sentences handed down last year, meanwhile, meant that the United States trailed more than 20 countries on that front in 2016. (Last year, with executions declining in the United States, the country came in at No. 5, as it had in previous years.)

In the United States, executions peaked at 98 in 1999 and have been steadily declining ever since. The executions that were carried out last year occurred in just five states, and most were concentrated in Georgia and Texas, which carried out a combined 16 executions. States that would have otherwise carried out executions have found themselves sidelined because of legal uncertainty, court challenges and logistical issues, while others have struggled to obtain lethal injection drugs amid a years-long shortage that has prompted officials to scramble in search of new chemicals and protocols.

With lethal injection drugs expiring, Arkansas plans unprecedented seven executions in 11 days

Support for the death penalty has fallen nationwide. A Pew Research Center survey last year found that the share of Americans supporting the death penalty dropped below 50 percent, its lowest level since the 1970s, while a Gallup poll found that support remained at 60 percent. Overall, the level of support remains well below where it was in the 1990s, when four out of five people in the United States supported the death penalty.

In a statement accompanying its death-penalty survey, Amnesty — which opposes capital punishment — noted with some apprehension the spate of executions scheduled for this month in Arkansas, which plans to carry out an unprecedented seven lethal injections over 11 days. Officials in that state have defended the packed schedule as necessary because one of their lethal injection drugs is going to expire, but lawyers and corrections officials have expressed concerns about the heightened potential for a mistake.

“The scheduled executions in Arkansas stand in stark contrast to the momentum that has been building against the death penalty in the United States,” Margaret Huang, executive director of Amnesty International USA, said in a statement. She said the country “must not backslide on progress when it comes to the death penalty and must do away with this cruel and inhumane practice once and for all.”

The executions in Arkansas are scheduled to take place between April 17 and 27. If the seven executions in Arkansas and one set in Virginia during that window are carried out, that will push the total executions in the United States to 14 for the year, one ahead of where the country was at the same point last year.

Overall, Amnesty said it found a decline in the death penalty worldwide last year.

There are some asterisks, of course. Amnesty stopped publishing an estimate on the number of executions in China because of what the group describes as a lack of information from officials there, though it notes that the available details suggest that “thousands of people are executed and sentenced to death in China each year.” There are also other countries where “little or no information” is available, including Syria, Yemen, North Korea and Laos, Amnesty notes. In other cases, Amnesty publishes what it says are lowball figures; the group lists Egypt as having carried out at least 44 executions, because that is how many it was able to confirm, even though Amnesty says it believes more occurred.

Further reading:

After divided Supreme Court allows Alabama execution, inmate heaves and coughs during lethal injection

Ohio Supreme Court says state can try to execute an inmate again after failed attempt