The death penalty in the United States is in decline. It is less used, less popular and just as unnecessary as ever, according to a year-end report from the Death Penalty Information Center, which tracks death penalty numbers. This should represent a way station toward the punishment’s eventual elimination — not a temporary low in its application.
For the fifth year in a row, fewer than 30 people were executed and fewer than 50 people were sentenced to death. Half of states representing half the population no longer execute people. With the New Hampshire legislature’s abolition of capital punishment last year, the punishment has been banned across New England and in all Northeastern states save Pennsylvania, where the governor has imposed a moratorium.
Seven states executed 22 inmates last year, and Texas was responsible for nearly half. The state is also responsible for a large share of new death sentences. No one was executed west of Texas. Juries in California, the state with the largest death-row population, handed down three new death sentences in 2019. But California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) declared a moratorium and ordered San Quentin State Prison’s execution chamber dismantled. Otherwise, new death sentences mostly came in the South, particularly in Florida.
Death sentences are down some 90 percent from their mid-1990s peak. Executions are down some 77 percent from the late 1990s.
Even so, the death penalty survives, as does the horrifying possibility that the government might kill an innocent person. Two more death-row inmates were exonerated in 2019. That makes 166 exonerees since 1973.
As always, those executed are not necessarily the worst of the worst but the least capable of defending themselves. The center found that “at least 19 of the 22 prisoners who were executed this year had one or more of the following impairments: significant evidence of mental illness; evidence of brain injury, developmental brain damage, or an IQ in the intellectually disabled range; or chronic serious childhood trauma, neglect, and/or abuse.”
It is little wonder — and heartening — that public opinion is evolving. Sixty percent of Americans said in a 2019 Gallup poll that life without the possibility of parole is a better penalty for murder than death. That was the first time Gallup reported a majority holding that position. The Trump Justice Department, however, failed to get the memo, pushing suddenly and unexpectedly last year to execute federal inmates for the first time in 16 years.
The death penalty is expensive, unfairly implemented and unworthy of a justice system that strives for equal application of the law. Yet even if it could be applied fairly, state-sponsored killing would be unworthy of a nation founded on the principle of individual dignity.