Public support for the death penalty dropped to its lowest level in 45 years in 2017, and the number of death sentences and executions is the second-lowest in a generation, succeeded only by last year’s record lows.
That’s according to the Death Penalty Information Center, which released its annual report this week, highlighting the continuation of the long-term decline of the death penalty in the United States.
Eight states carried out 23 executions, half the number of seven years ago, and the second lowest total since 1991, DPIC reports. Only the 20 executions in 2016 were lower. Fourteen states and the federal government are projected to impose 39 new death sentences in 2017, the second lowest annual total since the U.S. Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional in 1972. It was the seventh year in a row that fewer than 100 death sentences were imposed nationwide.
Of the 23 prisoners killed, 90 percent presented significant evidence of mental illness, intellectual disability, brain damage, severe trauma, and/or innocence. Those impairments are compounded by systemic failures in the death-penalty system, including inadequate representation and ongoing problems with lethal injection.
DPIC Executive Director Robert Dunham noted that the new death sentences imposed in 2017 highlight the increasing geographic isolation and arbitrary nature of the death penalty. “By themselves, three outlier counties – Riverside, California; Clark, Nevada; and Maricopa, Arizona – were responsible for more than 30 percent of all the death sentences imposed nationwide,” he said. Riverside imposed five death sentences in 2017, Clark four, and Maricopa three, and no other county imposed as many as two. It was the second time in three years that Riverside sentenced more people to death than any other county.
States scheduled 81 executions in 2017, but 58 of them – more than 70 percent – were never carried out. Nearly 75 percent of executions took place in four states: Texas (7); Arkansas (4); Florida (3); and Alabama (3). But Texas’ state courts stayed seven other executions using new laws to permit those prisoners to obtain judicial review of false or misleading evidence, and its execution total tied 2016 for the fewest conducted by the state since 1996.
Six of the defendants sentenced to death this year were under 21 at the time of the crime, and five defendants were allowed to represent themselves.
Systemic problems with racial discrimination, flawed or fraudulent forensic testimony, poor legal representation, and prosecutorial misconduct contributed to four death-row exonerations in 2017, according to DPIC.
Many believe that the risk of executing the innocent is one of the leading factors behind the public’s decrease in support for the death penalty. According to the Gallup poll, public support for the death penalty dropped by five percent in 2017, and Republicans registered a 10-percentage point drop since last year. This year’s 55 percent support marks the lowest level since 1972, just before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the nation’s death penalty laws unconstitutional.