Public support for and use of the death penalty in 2022 continued its decline of more than two decades in the US, with many of the executions carried out during the year “botched” or highly problematic, it says an annual report on capital punishment.
There were 18 executions in the US in 2022, the fewest in any pre-pandemic year since 1991. There were 11 executions last year. Outside of the pandemic years, the 20 death sentences handed down in 2022 were the fewest for any year in the US in half a century, according to the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center report, DC.
“All indicators point to the continued decline in capital punishment and the move away from the death penalty is enduring,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the nonprofit, which does not comment on capital punishment but has criticized the way states carry out executions. .
In the US, 37 states have abolished the death penalty or have not carried out an execution in more than a decade. On Tuesday, Oregon Governor Kate Brown commuted the sentences of the state’s 17 death row inmates to life without parole. Oregon last executed a prisoner in 1997. There have been no federal executions since January 2021 following a historic use of capital punishment by the Trump administration. In July 2021, the Justice Department placed a moratorium on federal executions.
The report called 2022 the “Year of the botched execution,” as seven out of 20 execution attempts in the US were visibly problematic or took an excessive amount of time. That led some states to put them on hold so processes and protocols could be reviewed.
Significant problems were reported with all three of the Arizona executions, as corrections officers struggled to find suitable veins for IV lines to administer the lethal injection.
In Alabama, Gov. Kay Ivey ordered a “top-down” review of the state’s capital punishment system last month after three failed lethal injections, including two in 2022 related to problems with the IV lines used to deliver the drugs.
Other concerns regarding the executions included a South Carolina judge’s ruling in September that called the state’s newly created firing squad unconstitutional, as well as its use of the electric chair. The state Supreme Court will hear arguments on the issue next month.
In April, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee halted lethal injections in his state because the drugs used in executions had not been tested. The oversight forced Lee to abruptly halt plans to execute inmate Oscar Smith an hour before he died last April.
Dunham said he believes ongoing problems with botched executions or revisions to execution protocols by states are helping to erode public support for capital punishment. Gallup polls show that public support for the death penalty has steadily declined over the past 28 years, falling from 80% in 1994 to 55% this year.
“There are very few states that are trying to carry out the death penalty. But they are acting in a way that … their conduct is undermining public confidence that states can be trusted with the death penalty,” Dunham said.
While five of the 18 executions that took place in 2022 were in Texas, that is well below what the nation’s most active capital punishment state has historically seen. In 2000, executions in Texas peaked at 40, according to this year’s annual report from the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
Kristin Houlé Cuellar, executive director of the coalition, said she believes “the era of overuse of the death penalty in Texas is over,” as prosecutors will continue to use long prison sentences to hold people accountable.
Deborah Denno, a law professor at Fordham University in New York, said she’s not surprised by the declining use and public support for capital punishment. She cites as reasons: more people learning about the various problems with carrying out executions, questions about whether it deters crime, and a growing number of inmate exonerations.
“Any kind of prediction about the future would suggest that the death penalty will be limited to a few states. Over time, there will be increasing pressure in those states to abolish the death penalty,” Denno said.
Dunham said she believes the number of botched executions has contributed significantly to the movement among lawmakers, particularly Conservatives, to express doubt about the death penalty.
In Oklahoma, Republican state Rep. Kevin McDugle, a self-described supporter of the death penalty, became one of the strongest supporters of death row inmate Richard Glossip after concerns were raised about loss or destruction evidence and police bias. Glossip’s execution was delayed last month.
In Texas, Republican state Rep. Jeff Leach helped lead a bipartisan group of lawmakers who believe new evidence shows death row inmate Melissa Lucio did not fatally strike her daughter. Leach and some of the lawmakers visited Lucio on death row before her execution was delayed in April.
In an interview with The Associated Press earlier this year, Leach said he hopes lawmakers can work to make sure “there’s absolutely no chance that we’re executing an innocent Texan.”
“To say that I am struggling with the very existence of the death penalty in Texas would be a dramatic understatement,” Leach said.
Michael Benza, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, said the changing political environment around the death penalty has made it easier for lawmakers to have meaningful discussions about capital punishment.
“And they have trouble with that when they actually look at what’s going on. I think politicians are wondering if this is the right thing to do or not,” Benza said.
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