Executions, Death Sentences Plunge Across Nation
But voters still support capital punishment laws.
By Bob Egelko
Death sentences and executions nationwide have fallen sharply this year, while California -- which hasn't executed a prisoner in more than a decade -- has issued nine death sentences, 30 percent of the nation's total, according to a report released Tuesday.
And while the study by the Death Penalty Information Center also found a continued decline in public support for capital punishment, voters in both California and Nebraska rejected ballot measures last month that would have repealed their states' death penalty laws. Oklahomans voted 2-1 to make the death penalty part of their state Constitution so that state judges could not overturn it.
Overall, this year's developments "show America has deep divisions about the death penalty," said Robert Dunham, the center's executive director and author of the report.
He noted that prosecutors in four of the 16 counties that imposed the most death sentences in the nation between 2010 and 2015 -- two in Florida and one each in Texas and Alabama -- were voted out of office this year.
In Kansas, four state Supreme Court justices were re-elected despite a campaign by death penalty supporters prompted by rulings overturning several death sentences. In 1986, a similar campaign in California ousted Chief Justice Rose Bird and two liberal colleagues and swung the state Supreme Court's majority rightward.
The report said the 30 death sentences issued in the U.S. in 2016 were 19 fewer than the 2015 total and the lowest number since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down then-existing death penalty laws in 1972. By contrast, Dunham said, there were 315 death sentences nationwide in 1996.
Murder rates have declined somewhat since then, he said, and seven states have repealed their death penalty laws in the past decade, bringing the total number of states that have outlawed capital punishment to 19. In recent years, the U.S. Supreme Court has banned executions of juveniles and the mentally disabled and struck down parts of several state laws. Many drug manufacturers in both the United States and Europe have refused to provide drugs for use in lethal injections.
In addition, Dunham said, prosecutors are seeking fewer death sentences, and jurors are less willing to issue death verdicts.
California, with the nation's largest population, is regularly among the leaders in death sentences, and has more than one-fourth of the nation's condemned prisoners, with 750 on Death Row. But Dunham said the figures reflect policy more than population -- a relative handful of counties account for most of this year's death sentences, and Los Angeles County, with four, was the only one in the nation to sentence more than one person to death.
After California's last execution, in January 2006, a federal judge ruled that flaws in the state's lethal injection procedures created an undue risk of a botched and agonizing execution. Subsequent state efforts to resume executions have been rejected by state and federal courts. Voters last month approved Proposition 66, intended to speed up executions by tightening court deadlines and limiting appeals, but the state Supreme Court put the measure on hold Tuesday to consider a legal challenge.
Asked about the decline in death sentences, Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento and an author of Prop. 66, said, "I don't put a lot of stock in the numbers. We've always said it should be for the worst murderers, and over the long term the number of murders is down by a large amount."
There have been 20 executions nationwide this year, down from 28 in 2015 and the lowest total since 1991, the report said. Georgia had the most, with nine. Texas, which heads the list most years, has conducted seven executions, while its courts have blocked seven others, the report said.
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