Executions Just Hit a 20-Year Low

And fewer people got the death penalty this year than in any year since ’74.

Amber Hunt/AP Images

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.


There’s some encouraging news this week in the usually gloomy realm of criminal justice. According to a new report from the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), there were fewer executions this year than in any year since 1994—and fewer new death sentences imposed than any year since 1974. That may be of little comfort to the family of Robert Wayne Holsey, a low-functioning man whose severely alcoholic court-appointed lawyer sealed his ultimate fate—Georgia executed him earlier this month—but the numbers are certainly dwindling. In 2012, states put 43 people to death. In 2013, the number was 39. This year, it’s down to 35.

Perhaps more encouraging for foes of capital punishment: Only 72 new death sentences were imposed this year (a measure the DPIC considers a more accurate indicator of the trend). That’s a 77 percent decline since 1996, as more and more states have offered juries the option of imposing a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.

Death Penalty Information Center

In addition, an increasingly smaller group of states accounts for the majority of executions. Seven states put prisoners to death this year (down from 20 just 15 years ago)‚ but just three of them—Florida, Missouri, and Texas—accounted for 80 percent of all the executions. The number of states that sanction the death penalty may be waning, too. In 2014, the governors of Colorado, Oregon, and Washington all imposed moratoria. And for what it’s worth, 2014 was the first year since 1997 that Texas didn’t lead the country in executions. (It tied with Missouri, at 10 apiece.) 

Death Penalty Information Center

Aside from the continued decline in public support for capital punishment—just over half of Americans were for it in 2014, as opposed to nearly two-thirds in 2011—some new factors may have contributed to this year’s numbers. Botched executions in Ohio, Arizona, and Oklahoma shed light on the untested drug cocktails states are now using for lethal injections, after European drugmakers cut off their supplies. Following widespread press coverage of these gruesome execution attempts—some of which appeared to violate the Eighth Amendment’s protection from cruel and unusual punishment—Oklahoma and Ohio halted executions for the rest of the year. (In response to the mishaps, the Justice Department is expected to release a major report next year.)

“The decline in the use of the death penalty has been going on for 15 years, and is likely to continue.”

We’ve also seen increased scrutiny this year of states’ willingness to execute the mentally ill or intellectually disabled. Earlier in the year, the Supreme Court ruled in Hall v. Florida that Florida’s fit-for-execution standard—merely having an IQ exceeding 70 was enough—violated standards of decency. And the case of Scott Panetti, a schizophrenic man that Texas is determined to execute, put that state’s low standards on international display. (A federal court has temporarily stayed Panetti’s execution, a move even prominent conservatives have supported.)

Major battles lie ahead for death penalty opponents. More than 3,000 people are still on death row and 30 executions have been scheduled for 2015. Fourteen states, including some the ones that botched their executions, have pursued legislation that would shroud many aspects of the execution process in secrecy—particularly the details about what’s in their lethal cocktails.

But momentum against the death penalty is strong. “Overall, the decline in the use of the death penalty has been going on for 15 years, and is likely to continue,” explains Richard Dieter, the executive director of the DPIC and an author of the new report. “For the public, the death penalty has already receded as a significant part of the criminal justice process.”

SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

payment methods

SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate