The death penalty continues its decline in the United States due to a combination of court decisions and logistical problems. The Justice imposed in 2016 the lowest number of death sentences in the modern era, since in 1976 the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment. Twenty people have been executed this year, the lowest number since 1991. But that data hardly alters the sentiment of the street: three states (California, Nebraska and Oklahoma) supported capital punishment in citizen votes in November.
Although citizen support has declined in recent years, there are still more supporters (49%) of executions than those who oppose them (42%), according to a Pew Research survey. Still, it’s the first year in 45 that support is less than 50%.
The social gap is visible in politics. The outgoing US president, Democrat Barack Obama, supports the death penalty in extreme cases; the entrant, Republican Donald Trump , supports it without nuances. While some states in November appointed prosecutors who oppose the executions, others did the opposite.
In the DPIC they are optimistic. “The United States is in the midst of a big change regarding capital punishment. Although there may be occasional adjustments and backsliding, the long-term trend remains clear, ” writes Robert Dunham, the center’s executive director , in the report. “Every year the public is more uncomfortable with the death penalty.”
The organization estimates that some 30 people will have been sentenced to death this year, 39% less than the previous year. And it highlights that, for the first time in more than 40 years, no state imposed ten or more death sentences. Only five states have imposed more than one.
The 20 executions in 2016 represent a decrease of more than 25% compared to the previous year. Only five states legally killed prisoners, the lowest number since 1983.
One of the factors behind the decline is legal changes in some states. The Supreme Court ruled illegal practices that disproportionately promoted the death penalty in Arizona, Oklahoma and Florida, where for example a judge could override the judgment of a jury.
Also contributing to the decline is the difficulty of accessing substances used in lethal injections as a result of the growing boycott of European and American pharmaceutical companies. The 32 states that allow the death penalty have been forced in recent years to turn to drugs in alternative markets or abroad to carry out executions.
But that lockdown also leads to unwanted consequences. In the absence of drugs, states experiment with new substances to kill. Two weeks ago, a prisoner was dying for 13 minutes during his execution in Alabama when a sedative that had already caused seizures in 2014 was given to an inmate in Oklahoma.
Precisely, the citizens of Oklahoma approved in a referendum in November, with 66% of votes in favor, an amendment that allows the State to use drugs in lethal injections that have not been authorized by the Supreme Court due to the fear that the Justice could consider unconstitutional the new substances currently used.