Death Penalty

Nationwide, the death penalty continues to decline despite the former president’s execution spree

Photo of the dismantlement of CA's death chamber is via Governor Gavin Newsom’s Facebook.
Celeste Fremon
Written by Celeste Fremon

As WitnessLA readers know, last week, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland  instituted a temporary pause when it came to scheduling any more federal executions.

Therefore it is timely that the Death Penalty Information Center has just put out a new report that gives us a look at where executions stand overall around the nation in the first half of 2021.

In its report, which is worth reading in its entirety, the DPIC notes two continuing death-penalty trends in the United States.

Number one, according to executive director, Robert Dunham, and the rest of the DPIC staff,  there is “the continuing erosion of capital punishment in law and practice across the country.”

This is the good news.

For example, on March 24th, 2021, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam signed into law HB2263, abolishing the death penalty in the Commonwealth of Virginia, making the state  the 23rd in the nation, and the first in South, to eliminate capital punishment entirely.

The bad news, however, is what the report describes as the “lawless conduct of the few jurisdictions that have attempted to carry out executions this year.”

On a federal level, of course, this year began with three executions that were the last of the “unparalleled spree of 13 federal civilian executions in six months and two days, which WLA reported about here.

Two more people were executed by the state of Texas.

Still those numbers are low, and look as if they will stay low.  According to the the DPIC, the  low numbers in the states, were affected by the pandemic, as had been the case in 2020 (except for the Trump administration’s executions).

Still, according to DPIC, these first half numbers also suggest that 2021 “will be the seventh consecutive year of fewer that 30 executions and fewer than 50 new death sentences in the U.S.”

Bottom line, they wrote, “the first half of 2021 featured the historic abolition of capital punishment in the former home of the Confederacy and historically low numbers of both executions and new death sentences.”

And Virginia’s abolition of the death penalty “was significant both historically and symbolically,” as it is “the first time a Deep South state whose death penalty was closely tied to a history of slavery, lynching, and Jim Crow segregation had abandoned the punishment.”

Only four new death sentences were imposed, one of the sentences imposed in California.  Still, that is “a rate of sentencing unmatched since the death penalty resumed in the U.S. in the 1970s,” writes the DPIC.

It is, however, dispiriting, that the states of Arizona and South Carolina have made plans to carry out executions using methods that have been abandoned in most of the country due to their cruelty, according to the report.

For instance, Arizona announced that it had “refurbished” its gas chamber to execute prisoners with cyanide gas, which the DPIC notes is  the “same substance used by the Nazis to murder more than a million people during the Holocaust.”

Then, in South Carolina, one day before the tenth anniversary of the state’s last execution, the SC legislature passed a law allowing the state to perform executions using either the electric chair or firing squad.

Perhaps even worse, Alabama announced that it was nearly ready to perform executions using nitrogen hypoxia, “a new, untried method in which the prisoner dies of asphyxiation from breathing pure nitrogen.”

Some of the states still actively planning executions “also displayed remarkable incompetence,” according to the DPIC report.   Arizona for example, tested the air-tightness of its execution chamber by passing a candle flame across its seals, which critics suggest is not exactly a definitive method of testing.

Nevada obtained some execution drugs online “in probable violation of state and federal law and despite advance notice that the drugs could not be used for executions.”

And Texas completely forgot to bring the lawfully assembled reporters into the prison to witness one of their two executions.

Race and the death penalty

Yet,  beyond the hopeful news, and the discouraging news, there is the ongoing and inexcusable fact of the racial disparities, “which are present at every stage of a capital case and get magnified as a case moves through the legal process,” said DPIC’s Robert Dunham, who edited a report on the matter last year.

“If you don’t understand the history,” he wrote, “that the modern death penalty is the direct descendant of slavery, lynching, and Jim Crow-segregation — you won’t understand why.

“What is broken or intentionally discriminatory in the criminal legal system is visibly worse in modern death-penalty cases,” which Dunham describes as “the direct descendant of slavery, lynching, and Jim Crow-segregation.”

And so it is, that understanding how the the system discriminates in capital cases, writes Dunham, “can shine an important light on law enforcement and judicial practices in vital need of abolition, restructuring, or reform.”

Top photo of the dismantlement of the state’s death chamber is via Governor Gavin Newsom’s Facebook.