Executions in US fall to lowest level in 24 years, report shows
28 executions in 2015 reflects public support for death penalty falling, says expert body
James Holmes, who killed 12 people and wounded 70 others in a Colorado cinema in 2012, was sentencd to life in prison rather than death. Photograph: Andy Cross/Reuters
Executions in the United States in 2015 fell to their lowest number in nearly 25 years, and new death sentences imposed by courts declined to levels not seen since the early 1970s, according to a report released on Wednesday.
The annual survey by the Death Penalty Information Centre recorded 28 executions this year, the fewest since 1991, when there were 14. “The numbers are consistent with a long-term trend in which public support for the death penalty is dropping, the number of executions is dropping, and the number of death penalties imposed is dropping,” said Robert Dunham, the centre’s executive director.
Among the concerns cited in the study was one about the fairness of many death penalty prosecutions, an unease that has been heightened by the number of exonerations of death row inmates in recent years. This year, Pennsylvania’s governor has declared a moratorium on executions, Connecticut’s supreme court has determined the punishment to be unconstitutional and the Nebraska legislature repealed that state’s death penalty law – although voters will formally decide the statute’s future in a referendum next year.
In addition, shortages in the drugs used for lethal injections have led several states to impose temporary moratoriums until they obtain reliable supplies. The death penalty survey found there were seven fewer executions this year than in 2014. Only six states carried out executions this year – led by 13 in Texas, which frequently has the nation’s most executions; six in Missouri; and five in Georgia.
That was the fewest number of states that executed someone since 1992, the report said. Additionally, the 49 death sentences handed down by judges and juries this year was a 33 per cent decline from 2014 and was the lowest number of death sentences imposed since 1973. Juries in several prominent trials this year have opted to sentence defendants to life in prison rather than death. Those defendants included two in Colorado – James Holmes, who killed 12 people and wounded 70 others at an Aurora cinema in July 2012; and Dexter Lewis, who was convicted of stabbing five people to death in a Denver bar in October 2012.
Federal court jurors in Boston, however, sentenced Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death in May for the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. A single jurisdiction, Riverside County in California, imposed eight death sentences in 2015 – 16 percent of the total for the year, and more than any state except Florida, which handed down nine death sentences, according to the survey. In contrast, Texas imposed two death sentences in 2015.
During the past year, several states, including Ohio and Mississippi, have halted scheduled executions because their state prison systems lack an adequate supply of drugs for lethal injections, including sedatives that paralyse muscles, and drugs like potassium chloride, which stop the heart.
Drug manufacturers have cut off supplies to states when they believe the drugs will be used for lethal injections, and in some cases, compounding pharmacies that have stepped in to produce potassium chloride and other drugs for executions have ceased doing so once their names have been made public.
To avoid problems in obtaining drugs, some states passed legislation this year allowing other forms of execution, including Utah, which adopted a law to use firing squads if lethal injection is eventually declared unconstitutional. Oklahoma approved a law in April making asphyxiation with nitrogen gas its alternative execution method.
The report said six people on death rows around the country were exonerated this year, including Willie Manning, a black man who had been convicted of murdering two white women in Mississippi. Although nearly half of all murder victims in the nation are black, only six of 28 people executed this year had killed an African-American, the survey found. Ten of the 28 people executed this year were black.
New York Times service