WASHINGTON – Partly because of the impact of the pandemic on the criminal justice system, the number of executions in the United States this year has fallen to its lowest level since 1991 despite the Trump administration reviving the federal death penalty. This emerges from a study published on Wednesday.
The report from the Information Center on the Death Penalty said seven prisoners were executed by states, the lowest number since 1983. The center led the decrease in executions as well as a decrease in new death sentences due to court closings and public health concerns related to the prison back coronavirus, but also cited a long-term trend away from the death penalty in much of the country.
In contrast, the federal government executed 10 prisoners, the highest number of federal civilian executions in a single calendar year in the 20th or 21st century. The surge – the first time the federal government has executed more civilian prisoners than all states combined – was the result of a decision by the Trump administration to end an informal 17-year moratorium on the death penalty for federal crimes.
President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. has announced that he will work to end the federal death penalty. However, the Justice Department has planned three more executions in the first half of January before he takes office.
Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which is not categorically opposed to the death penalty but has been critical of its use, said states and the federal government were exposed to the same virus even though the annual numbers were skewed by the pandemic but reacted very much differently.
“At the time when almost every state was prioritizing the safety of its citizens over the execution of prisoners, the federal government decided that it was more important to carry out a rash of executions without full judicial review of these cases in the circumstances and public health endangered, ”he said.
Attorney General William P. Barr announced in July 2019 that the government would execute five men in the coming months, which the courts foiled shortly before the executions began. The Supreme Court then cleared the way for the Trump administration to resume the death penalty in June and allowed any execution.
In her senior year, the government has also allowed additional available execution options such as firing squads or electrocution. The 17-year federal death penalty hiatus was largely due to legal challenges and the unavailability of lethal injections, said Charles Stimson, a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. He said the government had simply continued the constitutionally approved tradition of the federal death penalty.
“Ultimately, if we are to uphold the rule of law, you have to make the rule of law work,” said Stimson.
This year, the total number of executions by both states and the federal government fell from 22 in the previous year to 17, according to the report.
Apr. 16, 2020, 7:32 am ET
The coronavirus has spread to correctional facilities across the country, making the death penalty difficult and killing some death row inmates before states can kill them. The Texas courts have stopped or delayed eight executions, and four more have been delayed in Tennessee by court order or by the governor, the report said. Of the 62 execution dates set for that year, only 17 were carried out.
In contrast to the federal states, the federal government has largely adhered to its schedule despite the dangers of the pandemic.
Two lawyers for Lisa Montgomery, the only woman on federal death row scheduled to be executed, contracted the coronavirus after visiting her client. A judicial statement by a Bureau of Prisons official found that eight members of the team that carried out a federal execution in November at the Terre Haute, Indiana prison complex, where hundreds of cases have been reported, later tested positive for the virus.
Coronavirus forced states to temporarily close their courts, a major factor that resulted in the fewest new death sentences passed in a year since the Supreme Court repealed existing death penalty laws in 1972.
According to a Gallup poll, support for the death penalty in murder cases has been around 55 percent since 2017.
Robert Blecker, professor emeritus at New York Law School, said poll support for the death penalty depends largely on how the question is phrased. Support will rise when the question identifies the circumstances and “atrocities associated with the murder,” he said.
Colorado became the 22nd state to abolish the death penalty this year, and 12 others have not carried out executions in at least a decade, according to the center’s report.
In addition, voters in at least nine major counties elected new prosecutors who had pledged to abandon the death penalty or use it sparingly. These districts make up 12 percent of the current death row population, the report said.
Most likely, the number of executions and death sentences will rise in 2021 and 2022 as the pandemic subsides, said Dunham, the report’s lead author. But those who are to die under the Trump administration will most likely be the final federal executions, at least while Mr Biden is in office.