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Executions in the U.S. in 2021 hit a three-decade low with 11, report says

Execution chamber in the U.S. penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind.
States and the federal government carried out 11 executions in 2021, the lowest number since 1988.
(Chuck Robinson / Associated Press)

States and the federal government carried out 11 executions this year, the fewest since 1988, as support for the death penalty has continued to decline.

That’s according to an annual report on the death penalty released Thursday, which was also sharply critical of the Supreme Court and its role in green-lighting executions. Three of the death sentences were carried out in January during an unprecedented run of federal executions that ended days before former President Trump left office. Annual executions have steadily declined since peaking at 98 in 1999.

Pandemic-related disruptions partly accounted for the low number of executions this year — though 2021 marked the seventh consecutive year when there were fewer than 30 executions and fewer than 50 new death sentences, the report said.

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The federal death penalty was put on hold in July by Atty. Gen. Merrick Garland, well short of the permanent abolition activists hoped for when President Biden became the first sitting U.S. leader to have openly opposed the death penalty. Executions by state governments continued despite growing numbers of Americans opposed to the death penalty.

The report from the Death Penalty Information Center said that, far from representing the “worst of the worst,” 10 of the 11 prisoners executed this year had “significant impairments,” including IQs judged to be in the intellectually disabled range.

Many cases were tainted by poor legal representation at trial and jurisdictions engaging in “shocking conduct” to thwart judicial review of credible constitutional claims, the report said.

A new state report concludes that the death penalty is ‘imposed so arbitrarily — and in such a discriminatory fashion — that it cannot be called rational, fair, or constitutional.’

“As death-penalty usage continues to erode, its flaws become even more evident,” the report from the Washington-based center said.

The report also noted the three conservative appointments to the Supreme Court by Trump and said that the justices demonstrated “deep hostility to stays of execution,” denying or lifting every stay of execution requested — other than a few on religious grounds that inmates should have fuller access to spiritual advisors.

The report also noted how some death-penalty states scrambled for alternative execution methods after pharmaceutical companies restricted access to drugs once widely used for lethal injections. It highlighted Arizona’s proposal this year to use the same cyanide hydrogen gas deployed by Nazis to kill Jews and others in their extermination camps.

Support for capital punishment, meanwhile, has plummeted from a high of 80% in 1994 to 54% this year, according to a 2021 Gallup poll cited in the report. Since the mid-1990s, opposition has risen from under 20% to around 45% now.

Lisa Montgomery’s execution comes as another court halted two other executions set for later this week because the inmates tested positive for COVID-19.

States also continue to rescind death-penalty laws. Virginia, once a prolific executioner, did so in March, bringing the number of states to have abolished the death penalty to 23. Three, including California, have moratoriums on executions.

Executions have been increasingly concentrated in a few states. Texas executed three inmates and Oklahoma two in 2021. Alabama, Mississippi and Missouri each executed one.

The Trump administration executed three federal inmates. The last, Dustin Higgs, was put to death five days before Biden’s inauguration. The federal executions brought the year’s total to 11.

Trump’s Justice Department executed 10 federal prisoners in 2020, ending a 17-year hiatus as the coronavirus raged through prisons. States suspended their death-penalty programs during the height of the pandemic.

Among other report highlights:

— Seven states imposed 18 new death sentences in 2021 — tying a record low. Alabama and Oklahoma imposed four each. California and Texas both imposed three. Florida imposed two, and Nebraska and Tennessee each imposed one.

— Six of the 11 inmates executed in 2021 were Black. Black and Hispanic defendants made up more than 60% of the death sentences imposed this year.

— Some 2,500 prisoners remain on state death rows. Some 50 remain on federal death row at a Terre Haute, Ind., prison after the Trump executions reduced their numbers by nearly a quarter.

The Biden Justice Department’s June order halted federal executions while it reviewed Trump-era practices. The Biden administration also withdrew notices of intent to seek the death penalty in several cases. But the administration did still keep pressing for death sentences for white supremacist Dylann Roof, convicted in the 2015 slayings of nine members of a Black congregation in South Carolina, and for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Despite a campaign pledge to decisively end executions, Biden hasn’t addressed the issue publicly as president. The report noted that he hasn’t backed legislation to strike the death penalty from U.S. statute books. Activists fear that federal executions could restart if Trump were to run again for president and win a second term or if another capital punishment advocate becomes president.


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