CHICAGO – States and the federal government carried out 11 executions this year, the fewest since 1988, as support for the death penalty has continued to decline.
That's according to an annual report on the death penalty released Thursday, which was also sharply critical of the Supreme Court and its role in green-lighting executions. Three of the death sentences were carried out in January during an unprecedented run of federal executions that ended days before President Donald Trump left office. Annual executions have steadily declined since peaking at 98 in 1999.
Pandemic-related disruptions partly accounted for the low number of executions this year — though 2021 marked the seventh consecutive year when there were fewer than 30 executions and fewer than 50 new death sentences, the report said.
The federal death penalty was put on hold in June by Attorney General Merrick Garland, well short of the permanent abolition activists hoped for when Joe Biden became the first sitting U.S. president to have openly opposed the death penalty. State executions continue despite growing numbers of Americans opposed to the death penalty.
The report from the Death Penalty Information Center said far from representing the “worst of the worst,” 10 of the 11 prisoners executed this year had “significant impairments,” including IQs in the intellectually disabled range.
Many cases were tainted by poor legal representation at trial and jurisdictions engaging in "shocking conduct” to thwart judicial review of credible constitutional claims, the report said.
“As death-penalty usage continues to erode, its flaws become even more evident,” the report from the Washington, D.C.-based center said.
The report also noted the three conservative appointments to the Supreme Court by Trump and said the justices demonstrated “deep hostility to stays of execution,” denying or lifting every stay of execution requested — other than a few on religious grounds that inmates should have fuller access to spiritual advisers.
The report also noted how some death-penalty states scrambled for alternative execution methods after pharmaceutical companies restricted access to drugs once widely used for lethal injections. It highlighted Arizona’s proposal this year to use the same cyanide hydrogen gas deployed by Nazis to kill Jews.
Support for the death penalty, meanwhile, has plummeted from a high of 80% in 1994 to 54% this year, according to a 2021 Gallup poll cited in the report. Since the mid-1990s, opposition has risen from under 20% to around 45% now.
States also continue to rescind death penalty laws. Virginia, once a prolific executioner, did so in March, bringing the number of states to have abolished the death penalty to 23. Three, including California, have moratoriums on executions.
Executions have been increasingly concentrated in a few Southern states. Texas executed three inmates and Oklahoma two in 2021. Alabama, Mississippi and Missouri each executed one. The Trump administration executed three. The last, Dustin Higgs, was executed five days before Joe Biden’s inauguration. The federal executions brought the year's total to 11.
Trump's Justice Department executed 10 federal prisoners in 2020, ending a 17-year hiatus as COVID raged through prisons. States suspended their death penalty programs during the height of the pandemic.
Among other report highlights:
— Seven states imposed 18 new death sentences in 2021 — tying a record low. Alabama and Oklahoma imposed four each. California and Texas both imposed three. Florida imposed two and Nebraska and Tennessee one each.
— Six of the 11 inmates executed in 2021 were Black. Black and Hispanic defendants made up more than 60% of the death sentences imposed this year.
— Some 2,500 prisoners remain on state death rows. Some 50 are left on federal death row at a Terre Haute, Indiana, prison after the Trump executions reduced their numbers by nearly a quarter.
The Justice Department's June order halted federal executions while it reviewed Trump-era practices. The Biden administration also withdrew notices of intent to seek the death penalty in several cases. But the administration did still keep pressing for death sentences for white supremacist Dylann Roof, convicted in the 2015 slayings of nine members of a Black congregation in South Carolina, and for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
Despite a campaign pledge to decisively end executions, Biden hasn't addressed the issue publicly as president. The report noted he hasn’t backed legislation to strike the death penalty from U.S. statutes. Activists fear federal executions could restart if Trump were to run again for president and win a second term or if another capital punishment advocate becomes president.
The report spotlighted several individual executions.
It described Oklahoma's execution of John Grant on Oct. 28 as “botched.” The 60-year-old, convicted in the 1998 slaying of a prison cafeteria worker, repeatedly convulsed and vomited after his lethal injection. Oklahoma's Department of Corrections said the execution occurred “without complication.”
The report also pointed to the May 19 Texas execution of Quintin Jones, 41, convicted of killing his great aunt in 1999. It proceeded without media witnesses, the first time since Texas resumed capital punishment in 1982 that no journalist was present. Officials blamed a failure to bring in reporters waiting nearby on miscommunication.
Two death row inmates were exonerated in 2021, both in Mississippi. One, Eddie Lee Howard Jr., who is Black, was freed after spending 26 years on death row after debunked bite-mark testimony and DNA evidence cleared him in the 1992 rape and killing of an 84-year-old white woman.
Those exonerations bring the total number of exonerees out of more than 9,600 death sentences since the early 1970s to 186, the report said.
That figure, it added, “revealed that the American death-penalty system is even more frighteningly unreliable than was previously understood.”
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