Two year-end reports highlight a broken death penalty system in the US

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“2022 can be called ‘the year of the botched execution,'” the Death Penalty Information Center stated in its annual report on capital punishment in the United States. Of the 20 executions scheduled, seven were problematic, “an astonishing 35%,” DPIC said, “a result of executioner incompetence, failures to follow protocols, or defects in the protocols themselves.” 

In all,18 men were killed in six states. Two Alabama executions, Alan Miller’s in September and Kenneth Smith’s in November, were halted after the execution teams’ repeated efforts to insert lines into the men’s arms, hands, legs, and groin left them bloody and traumatized. Those two attempts came on the heels of a July execution, during which it took corrections officers three hours to kill Joe James, Jr., “the longest botched lethal injection execution in U.S. history,” according to DPIC.

Alabama wasn’t alone. DPIC notes that Arizona and Texas botched their attempts because of the inability to insert IV lines and had to delay or cancel their executions. Alabama, Idaho, Ohio, Tennessee, and South Carolina put their executions on hold because of their inability to follow execution protocols. 

Capital punishment in the US “continued to be geographically isolated with only six states — Alabama, Arizona, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Missouri, and Texas — carrying out executions,” the report noted. Oklahoma, which killed five men this year, announced it plans to kill 25 individuals over the next two years, marking it as “an outlier” even among other killing states, DPIC reported. 

Racism continued to be a factor in who gets sentenced to death in America, the report showed. Eight of the 18 executed were people of color, and five of the eight were convicted of killing white victims. And, a “vast majority of those executed” had significant disabilities.

In somewhat encouraging news, two former death row prisoners were exonerated last year, bringing the number of death row exonerations to 190 since 1972, DPIC said. And reform district attorneys were reelected or elected in several places, including two “heavy-use death penalty counties,” Oklahoma County and Shelby County in Tennessee. 

And 2022 was the eighth consecutive year that fewer than 50 new death sentences were handed down, and fewer than 30 executions were carried out, according to the report.

Texas mirrored that trend last year, according to the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty’s year-end report, which found that use of the death penalty “remained near historic lows.”

Just two people were sentenced to death, five were executed, and three scheduled executions were stayed by the state’s supreme court, which meant  “the eight execution dates in 2022 were the fewest set in Texas since 1996,” TCADP noted.

But, as is the case in all of the death penalty states, “Despite their low number, the executions set and carried out in 2022 raise troubling issues about the fairness and utility of the death penalty. Four of the men put to death, including 78-year-old Carl Wayne Buntion, suffered from physical or mental impairments or histories of childhood trauma, while two maintained their innocence of the crimes for which they were convicted.”

And, while death sentences decline, “they continue to be applied disproportionately to people of color,” the report pointed out. More than 70% of those sentenced to death in the last five years were people of color, and among the state’s highest-use counties, “the patterns of racial bias” were even more striking, according to the report. 

New death sentences have dropped 96% since peaking in 1999, when 48 people were sentenced to death, according to the report. “The individuals set for execution likely would meet a different fate if they were charged today,” said the report’s author, Kristin Houlé Cuellar, TCADP Executive Director. But she notes that state and federal courts have such stringent review and relief standards, their executions “proceed despite egregious constitutional violations.” As a result, she states, “This ‘lethal lottery’ should compel all Texans to confront the realities of capital punishment.”

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