Friday, July 5, 2024

Alabama's death penalty rolls on in face of national decline

As one of only five states that executed people this year—and one of only seven states that sentenced people to death—Alabama remains an outlier in its continued use of the death penalty, according to the Death Penalty Information Center’s Year End Report.

According to the Equal Justice Initiative, the death penalty’s nationwide decline continued in 2023, which DPIC reports is the ninth consecutive year with fewer than 30 people executed and fewer than 50 people sentenced to death.

Alabama imposed three of this year’s 21 new death sentences. Two of the three were sentenced to death even though jurors did not agree that death was the appropriate sentence.

Allowing death sentences to be imposed without unanimous agreement from all 12 jurors is an outlier practice barred in almost every other state. Indeed, until Florida changed its law earlier this year, Alabama was the only state that allowed a person to be condemned to death without a unanimous jury vote.

Alabama put to death two of the 24 people who were executed this year in the U.S. Both men were executed despite the fact that all 12 jurors did not agree they should get the death penalty—a fact that would bar the death penalty in nearly every other state.

Alabama stands out as the state with the worst record of failed and botched executions after its torturous multi-hour execution of Joe James and its failed attempts to execute Alan Miller and Kenny Smith in 2022.

It retained that outlier status this year when the governor declared Alabama was ready to resume putting people to death after the same officials responsible for the failed and botched executions conducted a truncated, nontransparent “review” that failed to identify any problems with its protocol or explain what went wrong in its last three scheduled executions—in sharp contrast with the independent, comprehensive investigations ordered in states like Arizona and neighboring Tennessee.

The only specific change that resulted was an unprecedented new rule that made Alabama the only state in the country that allows executions without an established time frame, giving executioners unprecedented power.

And just last month, the Alabama Supreme Court authorized the use of an untested, unproven, never-before-used execution method when it gave prison staff a second chance to attempt to kill Kenny Smith by forcing him to breathe nitrogen gas.

The majority of states (29) have abolished the death penalty or stopped executions by executive action. Only a small handful of states continued to use the death penalty in 2023; indeed, the number of states conducting executions (5) and imposing death sentences (7) this year matched record lows.

Three more people were exonerated in 2023, bringing the total to 195 people who have been exonerated after being sentenced to death in the modern death penalty era.

Several other cases with strong evidence of innocence received intense media attention and unprecedented support from state lawmakers, prosecutors, judges, and other officials, likely contributing to the finding that more Americans now believe the death penalty is applied unfairly than fairly.

The number of new death sentences has dropped steadily over the past two decades, DPIC reports, thanks to new laws providing life-without-parole as an alternative sentence as well as “the elimination of non-unanimous death sentences in most states, the exclusion of people with intellectual disability from death penalty eligibility, and changes in the common and scientific understanding of mental illness and trauma and their lasting effects.”

These developments, together with apparent changes in jurors’ attitudes about the effectiveness, reliability, and fairness of the death penalty, underscore DPIC’s sobering conclusion that most of the people who were executed this year would not be sentenced to death today.

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