Drop in support for the death penalty matches decline in its use

Death penalty Credit California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Wikipedia CC 20 CNA 1 California Department of Corrections/wikimedia cc 2.0.

As support for the death penalty decreases in the U.S., so does the number of inmates executed by the states, said a new report this week.

The non-profit Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) said in a Dec. 17 report that 22 state executions were carried out in 2019, three fewer than in 2018 and the second-lowest rate in nearly three decades.

According to the DPIC, this is the fifth year in a row that states have carried out fewer than 30 total executions, and fewer than 50 new sentences for the death penalty have been handed down. The organization said this drop has coincided with a decrease in public approval for capital punishment, and an increase in public advocacy against it.

A November poll from Gallup found that for the first time in more than three decades, a majority of Americans favor life imprisonment without parole over the death penalty as a punishment for murder.

The poll found that 60% of survey respondents said life without parole is the preferable sentence for a person convicted of murder, while 36% said the death penalty is preferable.

The DPIC reported that 32 states have either abolished the death penalty or have not carried out an execution in a decade. Fewer than 40 new sentences will have been imposed by the end of 2019, the organization projected, which is significantly less than the 1994-1996 peak of capital punishment in the U.S., which saw more than 300 sentences issued annually.

In 2019, Ohio, California, and New Hampshire have either permanently banned or temporarily halted state executions, with other states limiting the crimes eligible for use of the death penalty, the organization said.

This year, New Hampshire became the 21st state to abolish the death penalty, completely eradicating use of the punishment in New England. Rep. Renny Cushing (D), a sponsor of the bill and family member of two murder victims, said the practice does not ensure public safety.

"I think it's important the voices of family members who oppose the death penalty were heard, the voices of law enforcement who recognize that the death penalty doesn't work in terms of public safety, and the voices of the people in the state that know the death penalty is an abhorrent practice were all heard today by the Legislature," he said, according to the DPIC.

Ohio suspended executions in February after a court ruling found that part of the lethal drug combination used in the state was comparable to waterboarding, suffocation, and being chemically burned alive. Governor Mike DeWine then halted executions until a humane protocol can be guaranteed.

"Ohio is not going to execute someone under my watch when a federal judge has found it to be cruel and unusual punishment," said DeWine at the time.

California became the fourth state to issue a moratorium on executions in 2019. Governor Gavin Newson announced the new policy on March 13, saying capital punishment is costly, ineffective, and has proven racially biased in its application.

Brandon Garrett, a Duke law professor and an author of several books on prosecution and the death penalty, said the California moratorium is particualrly significant because the state has by far the biggest death row in the nation. California has 729 death row inmates, twice the number in the next largest death row state, Florida.

"Over time, more states that are not executing anyone may reconsider the considerable expense of the death penalty as not a worthwhile use of resources," he told the Washington Post.

Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles praised California's decision, hailing it as a pro-life move that is good for the state and the nation.

"Every human life is precious and sacred in the eyes of God and every person has a dignity that comes from God. This is true for the innocent and it is true for the guilty. It is true even for those who commit grave evil and are convicted of the most cruel and violent crimes," said Gomez.

The Death Penalty Information Center said that numerous cases in 2019 involved mental illness or an error in the legal process.

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"Those sentenced to death this year included defendants whose juries did not unanimously recommend a death sentence, a brain-damaged defendant who was permitted to represent herself, a foreign national who waived his right to consular assistance, and others who waived their right to counsel, waived their right to a jury trial, and/or pled guilty and presented no case for life," the organization said.

It added that two men on death row - both convicted in the 1970s - were exonerated in 2019, bringing the number of exonerations since 1973 to 166. Clifford Williams Jr. was released from Florida's death row in March and Charles Ray Finch was released from prison in North Carolina in June.

For the World Day Against the Death Penalty in October, three U.S. bishops encouraged mercy during a live video stream. Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington emphasized the cases of people who have been found innocent through new evidence or modern DNA testing.

"With the death penalty, there are no re-tries. It concludes and ends a life that may have been wrongly [convicted]," Gregory said.

"The Gospel calls us to mercy. Mercy is never cruel," he added.

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