Twenty states and the District of Columbia have abolished capital punishment, reported the New York Times. Four more have imposed a moratorium on executions. Of the 26 remaining states, only 14 handed down any death sentences last year, for a total of 50 across the country — less than half the number six years before. California, which issued more than one-quarter of last year’s death sentences, hasn’t actually executed anyone since 2006. A new geography of capital punishment is taking shape, with just 2 percent of the nation’s counties now accounting for a majority of the people sitting on death row.
An small fraction of counties still imposes death sentences regularly. In June 2015, in the Supreme Court case Glossip v. Gross, which involved lethal injection, Justice Stephen Breyer noted in a dissent that only 15 counties — out of more than 3,000 across the United States — had imposed five or more new death sentences since 2010.
Breyer wrote that there is “convincing evidence” that innocent people have been executed in three states, and he described near-misses, with more than 100 exonerations on death row. He also laid out the proof that race affects who is selected for execution. The seminal study in the field,conducted in Georgia in the 1970s, found after controlling for many other factors that the death penalty was far more likely if a victim was white, especially if a defendant was black. Research since then has confirmed the disparity in states across the country. “Racism is the historical force that has most deeply marked the American death penalty,” says Carol Steiker, a Harvard law professor and an author of the forthcoming book “Courting Death: The Supreme Court and Capital Punishment From Colonial Days to the Present.”
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