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Executions in U.S. fall to 25-year low

By: The Washington Post , MARK BERMAN//December 15, 2016

Executions in U.S. fall to 25-year low

By: The Washington Post , MARK BERMAN//December 15, 2016//

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The United States is set to end 2016 with 20 executions for the year, a decline for the fourth consecutive year and the fewest since 1991. (Thinkstock)
The United States is set to end 2016 with 20 executions for the year, a decline for the fourth consecutive year and the fewest since 1991. (Thinkstock)

When the state of Alabama executed Ronald Bert Smith Jr. last week, he became the 20th inmate put to death in the United States this year. Smith’s execution was a rarity for the United States, where the death penalty is still retained in most states and on the federal level but, in practice, is carried out only in a shrinking handful of places.

No other lethal injections are scheduled for this month, meaning Smith will probably be the last inmate executed this year in the United States. As a result, the country is poised to end 2016 with its lowest number of executions in 25 years.

The decline in executions continues a recent trend, as 2016 will be the fourth consecutive year with fewer executions than the year before. It also speaks to a country that has shifted away from the death penalty in many places, while those states still trying to execute inmates have struggled with court challenges, drug shortages and issues with carrying out the executions.

Overall, though, the trend is clear. Since a peak of 98 in 1999, executions have steadily declined, falling this year to the lowest total since 1991, when 14 inmates were put to death.

This year’s decline can be attributed, in part, to a handful of states that are among the most active practitioners of capital punishment but have been sidelined for part or all of 2016.

Take Florida, which has carried out the fourth most executions nationwide since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.

Florida’s death penalty has been in flux for much of this year, ever since the Supreme Court struck down its system of imposing death sentences in January. After this ruling, in Hurst v. Florida, lawmakers rewrote the death-penalty statute, but this new version was promptly struck down by the Florida Supreme Court. Nearly a year after the Hurst ruling, it is still unclear what will happen to Florida’s nearly 400 death row inmates.

In some cases, states hoping to carry out executions have been delayed by an inability to get the drugs needed for lethal injections, still the country’s primary method of capital punishment.

Difficulty getting access to lethal injection drugs has helped fuel a decline in the number of executions in the United States in recent years. (Thinkstock)

These states have been hampered by a years-long shortage of lethal-injection drugs, fueled in part by European opposition to the death penalty and furthered by pharmaceutical opposition to any involvement in executions. As a result, states have had to scramble to adopt new combinations and seek supplies, which has caused extensive delays in some places.

Ohio, one of the most active death-penalty states, stopped executions for what will ultimately be at least three years while it sought new drugs. The state now says it plans to resume executions in January, though a spokesman did not respond to a message seeking comment about whether officials there had obtained the necessary drugs.

In Oklahoma, officials have still not resumed executions after authorities used the wrong drug to carry out one execution last year and nearly used an incorrect drug months later. An investigation was launched, producing a blistering grand jury report describing several avoidable lapses. Officials say they are still not seeking new execution dates.

Even the country’s clear leader in capital punishment is not entirely immune to what is happening nationwide. In Texas, a flurry of court action halted or delayed a series of death sentences, causing the state to see its longest lag between executions since 2014. Texas ultimately carried out seven executions this year, its fewest since 1996 and the first time since that year that it failed to execute at least 10 inmates. (For some context: As noted above, the United States executed 20 inmates this year. Texas matched or exceeded that mark on its own 10 times between 1997 and 2009.)

Five states carried out executions this year, down one from last year, when death sentences also declined.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington-based nonprofit, more than half of all states (31) still have the death penalty. However, that number includes places such as Pennsylvania, Oregon and Washington, where the governors have declared moratoriums, as well as places such as Florida, Ohio and Oklahoma, where executions are or have been on hold.

The death penalty, as an issue and a practice, did win victories this year. On Election Day, voters in Nebraska, California and Oklahoma showed support for capital punishment, rejecting a California measure to abolish it and, in Oklahoma, giving lawmakers more latitude in finding new execution methods. In Nebraska, voters repealed a bill that lawmakers had passed last year abolishing the death penalty. The state, which has 10 inmates on death row, last carried out an execution in 1997.


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