It’s a paradoxical moment in the history of the death penalty in the United States. The number of executions has dwindled to just a few, but the voters, even in the most liberal states, seem to want the punishment to remain on the books. That’s the message of the annual report from the Death Penalty Information Center, which produces the most comprehensive analysis of the subject each year.
The headline on the report—“Another Record Decline in Death Penalty Use”—notes that the remarkable fall in the number of executions and death sentences is part of a longer trend, one that continued this year. The numbers were the lowest in the modern era of the American death penalty, after a period, between 1972 and 1976, when the Supreme Court put a stop to executions. There were just twenty executions in the United States in 2016, down from a peak of ninety-eight in 1999. Even more remarkable, just thirty people were sentenced to death this year, compared with three hundred and fifteen in 1996. Indeed, as the report further notes, “Fewer new death sentences were imposed in the past decade than in the decade preceding the Supreme Court’s invalidation of capital punishment in 1972.” The reduction in death sentences means that the decline in executions is likely to continue as well, because the pipeline of new cases is not as full.
Despite these numbers, death-penalty abolitionists also received a host of bad news this year. In 2015, after a long political struggle, the Nebraska state legislature (which is unicameral) repealed the death penalty. But supporters of capital punishment put the issue on the ballot in the 2016 election, and more than sixty per cent of the voters supported its restoration. Voters in California were asked to address two contradictory initiatives concerning the death penalty. One would have ended executions in the state once and for all; the other sought to remove some of the legal barriers that have prevented executions from proceeding quickly, or really at all, in the state. The abolition initiative failed, with fifty-three per cent of the voters opposed, and the law for expediting the death penalty passed, with slightly more than fifty-one per cent of the vote. (It’s not clear what, if any, practical difference passage of the initiative will mean. The legal standoffs in California are likely to continue. There are seven hundred and forty-one people on death row in the state, but there hasn’t been an execution there since 2006.)
The debate over the death penalty seems to have taken on some of the characteristics of the Presidential race this year, as a contest between populists and élitists. Judges play the part of the élites in this particular debate, and the judiciary, as a whole, has shown ever-greater hostility toward approving executions. This year, the Supreme Court ruled for prisoners in several high-profile death-penalty decisions, holding that racial bias infected jury selection, in Foster v. Chatman, a case from Georgia, and rejecting Florida’s system of allowing judges to impose the death penalty even when jurors support life in prison, in Hurst v. Florida. (The Florida legislature sought to correct the defects identified by the Supreme Court in the Hurst case, only to have the Florida Supreme Court overrule the new law as well.) Delaware’s Supreme Court also nullified its state’s death-penalty law this year.
But, as the election results in California and Nebraska illustrate, the voters—the populists—continue to back the death penalty, as does the President-elect. (Donald Trump notoriously called for the execution of the Central Park Five, fourteen-, fifteen-, and sixteen-year-olds who were charged with a high-profile 1989 rape and beating, in 1989. Even though the five were later exonerated, Trump, during this year’s campaign, reiterated his belief in their guilt.) The Death Penalty Information Center report notes that public-opinion polls show some decline in support for the death penalty, but the opposition has never achieved close to a majority. And, notwithstanding ambiguous poll numbers, politicians from Trump to Barack Obama understand that support for the death penalty, at least in some form, is less politically risky than opposition to it. (Obama, for example, has supported executions for “extraordinarily heinous crimes.”) Trump’s victory, and those of other Republicans, can only reinforce that view.
Many factors have led to the decline in the death penalty in recent years: less crime over all, with less fear among the public as a result; DNA exonerations leading jurors to pause before imposing death; the reluctance of pharmaceutical companies to provide lethal-injection drugs and the resulting search (still under way) for a drug protocol that passes constitutional muster; the length and expense of the appeals mandated by the Supreme Court. All those reasons for the decline remain, but so, too, does the United States remain a country that has had the death penalty in effect for virtually all of its history. That’s not likely to change, either. The death penalty may keep shrinking, but it will probably never entirely go away.