Politics

The Death Penalty Continued Its Downward Trend in 2021

The authorities executed just 11 prisoners in 2021—the U.S.’s lowest total in recent history. It was the seventh consecutive year that fewer than 30 death row inmates were executed.

According to a December report published by the Death Penalty Information Center, we’re also seeing big plunges in death sentences for those newly convicted of capital crimes. Only 18 people were sentenced to death last year, matching the number sentenced in 2020.

Despite the uptick in homicides and gun violence during the past two years, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of pressure to reverse the trend toward fewer executions. Indeed, Virginia, the state that has executed the most prisoners throughout American history, formally ended the use of the death penalty in 2021. Even before ending the practice, the state hadn’t executed anybody since 2017. Twenty-three states have now stopped using the death penalty.

There was one major exception to the recent trend of fewer executions. Under President Donald Trump, the U.S. Department of Justice began executing federal death row inmates in 2020. Before that, there hadn’t been a federal execution since 2003. In the final six months of Trump’s term, 13 federal death row inmates were executed, the final three in January 2021, just days before Trump left office.

When President Joe Biden was on the campaign trail, he promised to support an end to the federal death penalty. There have been no executions since he took office. But this moratorium is eminently reversible unless Congress actually passes a law ending the practice. Similarly, Gov. Gavin Newsom has a moratorium in place for California, which has the most inmates on death row (at 699). California hasn’t executed an inmate since 2006, though prosecutors can (and do) still seek death sentences there for capital crimes.

Elsewhere, Oregon’s Supreme Court ruled in October that a 2019 law that narrows capital crimes to four specific types of aggravated murders (terrorist acts that kill two or more people, premeditated murder of children, prison murders by those already incarcerated for murder, and premeditated murders of correctional officers) should be applied retroactively. This, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, has the potential to resentence all 24 people currently on death row in Oregon. Meanwhile, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has maintained an existing moratorium put into place in 2011.

There are now pushes in Ohio and Utah to abolish the death penalty in those states, and the Death Penalty Information Center notes the bipartisan nature of the two proposals. Utah’s Republican-led effort is supported by four county prosecutors (two Democrats and two Republicans). In a group letter, the prosecutors wrote that “the death penalty in Utah today is a permanent and irreversible sentence within an imperfect system. It fails to deter crime. It retraumatizes victims. It disproportionately applies to minorities. It is expensive. And it makes plea negotiations coercive.” The bill would replace the state’s death sentence with a 45-years-to-life prison sentence.

2021 provided two examples of inmates cleared of the crimes that had put them on death row. In January, Eddie Lee Howard was exonerated for a murder after spending 26 years on death row in Mississippi. Also in Mississippi, Sherwood Brown was exonerated of a triple murder in August. He too spent 26 years on death row. In each case, forensics malpractice played a role in the men’s convictions; both were ultimately cleared by DNA evidence.

The Death Penalty Information Center has also calculated the additional costs to taxpayers when people who had been sentenced to death due to prosecutor or police misconduct sue and are awarded settlements or damages. The cases they analyzed for 2021 added up to $78 million in court awards and settlements. Most of that money went to half-brothers Henry McCollum and Leon Brown, who were coerced into confessing to rape and murder with fabricated evidence when they were teens and served 31 years before being exonerated by DNA evidence in 2014. They were awarded $75 million in damages in May.

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