AS IT was in so many other ways, 2020 was an exceptional year for capital punishment. This is not a good thing. Before 2020, the United States had steadily backed away from the death penalty. Public support for the ultimate punishment had declined. States had cut drastically the number of people they sentenced to die and the number they executed. The federal government had not executed anyone in nearly two decades. These shifts were still visible in 2020, in most of the country.

But President Trump and Attorney General William P. Barr pushed to kill as many federal death-row inmates as they could before leaving office. Their determination to revive the death penalty, a throwback to the excesses of the get-tough-on-crime trends of the 1980s and 1990s, contrasts sharply with the opposition to state-sanctioned killing that increasing numbers of Americans and elected officials share.

In state courthouses and prisons, where, in general, most death sentences are imposed and carried out in the United States, the covid-19 pandemic slowed the penalty’s already diminished rate of use, which reached historic lows in 2020. But the Death Penalty Information Center’s year-end report reckons, based on trends visible before the outbreak, that death sentences and executions would have approached record lows in 2020 regardless of the pandemic. Only five states executed someone, and only Texas executed more than a single inmate, marking the lowest number of state-level executions since 1983.

Death sentences hit a record-low 18, down from the previous low of 31 in 2016, issued in just seven states. Colorado joined 21 other states in abolishing the death penalty, and voters in a surprising number of major cities — such as Austin, Los Angeles, Orlando and Columbus, Ohio — elevated prosecutors who favor limiting or eliminating the punishment. Opposition to the death penalty hit 43 percent, the highest since 1966, according to Gallup.

Meanwhile, six people were exonerated from death row in 2020, after findings of prosecutorial misconduct. No error rate is negligible when it comes to ending human life. Documented mistakes, along with the death penalty’s expense, racial bias, uselessness in deterring crime and rank inhumanity make it incompatible with an enlightened society.

Yet Mr. Trump and Mr. Barr pushed with a macabre determination to jump-start federal executions. While states eschewed executions in the second half of the year to reduce the chance that staff, lawyers, witnesses and spiritual advisers might contract covid-19, Mr. Barr’s Justice Department pressed forward. Federal authorities have executed 10 people since getting started in July, making 2020 the first year ever in which the federal government executed more civilian inmates than the states did. In just five months, Mr. Trump oversaw more civilian executions than any other president in the 20th or 21st century. Three more inmates are scheduled to die in January, in the final weeks of Mr. Trump’s presidency.

It is neither tough nor smart to take life in the guise of justice; the practice is as callous as it is ineffective and inefficient. A renewed mania for executing criminals must be another Trump legacy that the nation quickly dismisses.

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