“THE DEATH penalty is withering throughout most of the country,” says the Death Penalty Information Center’s Robert Dunham. In its year-end report, his group found that executions, death sentences and public support for the death penalty approached or hit historic lows in 2015. Reducing the use of this immoral and impractical punishment, however, is not enough. Several places around the country hand down an astonishing number of death sentences, despite the expense in applying the ultimate punishment, despite the fact that exonerations continue to expose injustice in administering it and despite that the death penalty has no place in a society committed to human rights.
Six states put 28 people to death in 2015, the lowest number of executions since 1991. The pipeline into death row is also shrinking: As of the year-end report’s release two weeks ago, 14 states and the federal government had sentenced 49 people to die in 2015, a modern low, down from a 1996 peak of 315. This year also saw the death penalty end in Connecticut, where the state Supreme Court effectively struck it down; in Pennsylvania, where the governor issued a moratorium ; and in Nebraska, where the legislature ended the punishment. One possible motivation is the mounting evidence of the system’s deep faults: Six people were exonerated and released from death row this year, bringing the cumulative total since 1973 to 156.
Pharmaceutical companies’ refusal to sell drugs to states seeking to perform executions partially explains these figures. So does the lower crime rate the country has experienced in recent years. A majority of Americans still favor the death penalty. Even so, a greater share of Americans now oppose the punishment than at any time since 1972, and it is likely that many who favor it do so in theory but have qualms about it in application.
Once broadly accepted, capital punishment is increasingly a fringe practice. A handful of states conduct nearly all executions. Four — Texas, Missouri, Georgia and Florida — carried out 93 percent of them in 2015. Sixty-three percent of new death sentences came from a mere 2 percent of U.S. counties, a group with a history of disproportionately using the death penalty. Bad policy encourages this sort of excess: Three states — Alabama, Delaware and Florida — do not require juries to be unanimous when recommending a death sentence. A quarter of new sentences came from split juries in these states.
The Washington region is doing better. This was Maryland’s second full year since the legislature did away with the death penalty. Virginia imposed no new death sentences this year — but not because the state has ended the punishment. We have few illusions that the Republican-majority General Assembly will get rid of the death penalty anytime soon. But state lawmakers should at least attempt to make any future application of the punishment fairer.