by Betty Nelander
A look back at 2018 reveals death-penalty usage in the United States trending downward for the fourth consecutive year, according to a year-end report by the Death Penalty Information Center (“DPIC”). Executions numbered fewer than 30, and death sentences dropped below 50.
Even Texas, the “capital of capital punishment,” has seen a shift. While there were 13 lethal injections in 2018, the year also “saw the first Texas death row commutation in over a decade, six prisoners won last-minute stays, and another four men were taken off death row,” according to dallasnews.com.
Eight states used the death penalty in 2018, namely Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Nebraska, Ohio, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Texas as recorded through Dec. 13. Most disturbing is the number of individuals with grim health histories who are executed.
“A review of the 2018 executions by DPIC and the Promise of Justice Initiative found that 72% of the prisoners executed showed evidence of serious mental illness, brain damage, intellectual impairment, or chronic abuse and trauma, and four were executed despite substantial innocence claims,” deathpenaltyinfo.org reports.
Nationwide, the death row population saw a dip for the 18th straight year.
“Death sentences have declined by half in the last four years compared to the previous four years,” reports the DPIC. “Those years also produced the fewest new death sentences of any four-year period in the modern history of U.S. capital punishment.”
Many states have abandoned or placed moratoriums on capital punishment. The Washington Supreme Court in October 2018 “struck down the state’s death penalty, finding that it was imposed arbitrarily and in a racially discriminatory manner,” the Death Penalty Information Center reports. “Washington became the eighth state to legislatively or judicially abolish the death penalty since 2007.”
In March 2019, California Gov. Gavin Newsom suspended capital punishment in that state, which has the nation’s largest death row with 737 prisoners. “He said executions wasted money, didn’t make residents safer, and discriminated against people with mental illness or people of color,” vox.com reports. Public opinion has shifted, too. Some 56 percent of Americans back capital punishment, gallup.com reports, far less than the 80 percent who supported it in the 1990s. Forty-five percent say it is applied unfairly.
“Even in the face of inflammatory political rhetoric urging its expanded use,” said DPIC Executive Director Robert Dunham, “voters showed that the death penalty is no longer a political wedge issue. The reelection of governors who imposed death penalty moratoria, the replacement of hardline pro-death-penalty prosecutors with reformers, and Washington’s court decision striking down its death penalty suggest that we will see even greater erosion of the death penalty in the years ahead.”
Contributing to the slide in executions has been a shortage of drugs for lethal injections and an unwillingness by its manufacturers to make them available.
More than 106 countries have abolished capital punishment. In retaining it, the United States is in the company of such countries as China, Iran, Japan, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Belarus, Oman, and Taiwan.
Sources: deathpenaltyinfo.org, dallasnews.com, gallup.com, latimes.com, vox.com
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