In fact, the center’s report said support for the death penalty is eroding, reported the ABA Journal. The death-row population is at a 25-year low, according to the report. In 2018, Washington became the 20th state to abolish the penalty. And in October, a Gallup poll found that only 49 percent of Americans think capital punishment is “applied fairly,” the lowest level in the 18 years that Gallup has asked that question.
“Death row in the U.S. has decreased in size every year since 2001, even as the number of executions remains near a generational low,” the report said. “The combination of court decisions reversing convictions or death sentences, deaths from nonexecution causes, and exonerations now consistently outpaces the number of new death sentences imposed.”
Since 1973—the year after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down capital punishment laws in Furman v. Georgia—American courts consistently handed down more than 100 death sentences per year, often more than 200. Use of the sentence peaked in 1996 with 315 sentences but began a sharp decline around 2000 and has been under 50 new sentences since 2015. In 2018, the report said, the number of new death sentences is expected to total 42, once a three-judge panel in Ohio makes its ruling Dec. 28.
The reduction in sentences and executions may stem from a reduction in popular support for the death penalty. In addition to the Gallup poll, the report cites election results in Colorado—where governor-elect Jared Polis had promised to abolish the death penalty—and in three states where efforts to reinstate the death penalty were defeated. Pope Francis, the leader of the Catholic Church, formally condemned executions, calling them “an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”
Also slowing the rate of executions was the controversy over lethal injections. As pharmaceutical companies have started declining to sell drugs to states wanting to use them for executions, states have turned to compounding pharmacies with safety problems—an issue in Missouri and Texas, the report said—or lied to suppliers about the purpose of the drugs. Both Nevada and Nebraska were sued by drug companies that said the states misrepresented their purchases.
And courts have weighed in, too. Most prominently, the Washington Supreme Court abolished the death penalty in the state, in October, saying it was “imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner.” In addition, the U.S. Supreme Court stayed the execution of a man who is unable to remember his crimes because of dementia and a series of strokes. The high court heard oral arguments on whether executing such a person violates the Eighth Amendment.
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