“New death sentences and executions remained near historic lows in 2018 and a twentieth state [Washington] abolished capital punishment, as public opinion polls, election results, legislative actions, and court decisions all reflected the continuing erosion of the death penalty across the country,” according to the Death Penalty Information Center’s annual report released today.
In 2018, 14 states and the federal government imposed death sentences, with 57 percent of the projected 42 sentences coming from just four states: Texas and Florida (both with seven) and California and Ohio (both with five). No county imposed more than two death sentences for the first time in the modern era of the death penalty (after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down all death penalty statutes in 1972).
This year, for the fourth year in a row in the United States, there were fewer than 30 executions, and fewer than 50 death sentences, DPIC says. In addition, the country’s death row population declined for the 18th straight year.
There were 25 executions in 2018, with more than half — 13 — taking place in Texas. And, according to the report, the other death penalty states carried out fewer executions than in any year since 1991, when there were nine. According to the report, this four-year streak with fewer than 30 executions has not occurred since 1988-1991.
There were 42 death sentences this year. “Death sentences have declined by half in the last four years compared to the previous four years . . . producing the fewest new death sentences of any four-year period in the modern history of U.S. capital punishment … and the death sentences imposed this year were more than 85 percent below the peak of more than 300 per year in the mid 1990s,” DPIC reports.
In addition, the national death row population continued a decline it began in 2001. This is in spite of the number of executions remaining so low because “the combination of court decisions reversing convictions or death sentences, deaths from non-execution causes, and exonerations now consistently outpaces the number of new death sentences imposed,” according to the report.
The cases in which the death penalty was imposed or carried out continued to raise questions about the fairness of its application. More than 70% of the people executed showed evidence of serious mental illness, brain damage, intellectual impairment, or chronic abuse and trauma, and four were executed despite substantial innocence claims, DPIC says. “Rather than reserving executions and death sentences for the worst of the worst crimes and offenders, capital punishment was instead disproportionately meted out in 2018 in cases involving the most vulnerable defendants and prisoners and the least reliable judicial process.”
Still, “America continued its long-term movement away from the death penalty in 2018,” said DPIC Executive Director Robert Dunham. “Even in the face of inflammatory political rhetoric urging its expanded use, voters showed that the death penalty is no longer a political wedge issue. The reelection of governors who imposed death penalty moratoria, the replacement of hardline pro-death-penalty prosecutors with reformers, and Washington’s court decision striking down its death penalty suggest that we will see even greater erosion of the death penalty in the years ahead.”