11 executions in 2021 mark a low in three decades

Ernest Johnson was executed in October for killing three workers in a 1994 Missouri convenience store robbery – MODOC photo

CHICAGO (AP) – States and the federal government have carried out 11 executions this year, the fewest since 1988, as support for the death penalty continued to decline.

That’s according to an annual report on the death penalty that also sharply criticized the Supreme Court and its role in green light executions. Three of the death sentences were carried out in January in an unprecedented series of federal executions that ended days before President Donald Trump left. Annual executions have steadily declined since peaking at 98 in 1999.

The pandemic-related disruption is part of the explanation for the low number of executions this year – although 2021 marked the seventh year in a row with fewer than 30 executions and fewer than 50 new death sentences, according to the report.

The federal death penalty was suspended in June by Attorney General Merrick Garland, well below the permanent abolitionist activists hoped for when Joe Biden became the first sitting U.S. president to openly oppose the death penalty. State executions continue despite growing numbers of Americans opposed to the death penalty.

The Death Penalty Information Center report said that far from being “worst of worst”, 10 of 11 prisoners executed this year had “significant impairments,” including an IQ in the range of the intellectually disabled.

Many cases have been marred by poor legal representation at trial and courts engaging in “shocking conduct” to thwart judicial review of credible constitutional claims, according to the report.

“As the use of the death penalty continues to erode, its flaws become even more evident,” the Washington, DC-based center said.

The report also noted Trump’s three conservative Supreme Court appointments and said judges have shown “deep hostility to stays of execution,” denying or lifting every stay of execution requested – to the except a few for religious reasons that inmates should have more full access. to spiritual advisers.

The report also noted how some death penalty states rushed for alternative methods of execution after drug companies restricted access to once widely used drugs for lethal injections. He pointed to Arizona’s proposal this year to use the same gaseous hydrogen cyanide deployed by the Nazis to kill Jews.

Support for the death penalty, meanwhile, has risen 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, the opposition has grown from less than 20% to around 45% today.

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

Executions have increasingly been concentrated in a few southern states. Texas executed three inmates and Oklahoma two in 2021. Alabama, Mississippi and Missouri each executed one. The Trump administration executed three. The last, Dustin Higgs, was executed five days before Joe Biden’s inauguration. 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 COVID raged in prisons. States have suspended their death penalty programs at the height of the pandemic.

Other highlights of the report include:

– Seven states handed down 18 new death sentences in 2021 – tying a record. Alabama and Oklahoma have imposed four each. California and Texas have imposed three. Florida imposed two and Nebraska and Tennessee one each.

– Six of the 11 detainees executed in 2021 were black. Black and Hispanic defendants accounted for more than 60% of death sentences handed down this year.

– Some 2,500 prisoners remain on state death row. About 50 of them are left on federal death row in a prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, after Trump’s executions reduced their numbers by nearly a quarter.

The June Justice Department order suspended federal executions while examining Trump-era practices. The Biden administration has also withdrawn notices of intent to seek the death penalty in several cases. But the administration continued to push for white supremacist Dylann Roof, convicted in 2015 of murdering nine members of a black congregation in South Carolina, and Boston marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Despite the campaign pledge to end executions for good, Biden has not addressed the issue publicly as president. The report notes that it has not supported legislation to remove the death penalty from US laws. Activists fear that federal executions could recommence if Trump runs for president again and wins a second term, or if another capital punishment advocate becomes president.

The report highlighted several individual executions.

He described the execution of John Grant by Oklahoma on October 28 as “sloppy.” The 60-year-old man, convicted of the 1998 murder of a prison cafeteria worker, had several convulsions and vomiting after his fatal injection. Oklahoma Corrections said the execution was “uncomplicated.”

The report also indicated the execution in Texas on May 19 of Quintin Jones, 41, convicted of the murder of his great-aunt in 1999. It took place without media witnesses, the first time since Texas took over. capital punishment in 1982 that no journalist was present. Officials blamed the inability to bring in journalists waiting nearby to poor communication.

Two death row inmates were cleared in 2021, both in Mississippi. One of them, Eddie Lee Howard Jr., who is black, was released after spending 26 years on death row after debunking bite testimony and DNA evidence clearing him of the rape and of the 1992 murder of an 84-year-old white woman.

These exemptions bring the total number exonerated out of more than 9,600 death sentences since the early 1970s to 186, according to the report.

This figure, he added, “revealed that the US death penalty system is even more woefully unreliable than previously believed.”

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