Death sentences, executions continue to fade in 2020

Stock photo from Getty Images.

The numbers of death sentences, executions and public support for the death penalty continued to fall in 2020. And ironically, as it killed so many, the coronavirus pandemic slowed the death penalty even more, according to the Death Penalty Information Center’s annual report.

The center reported that the 17 executions carried out this year was the fewest since 1991, when 14 were executed. Even more striking, only 18 were sentenced to death in 2020, the fewest since 1973.

“The historically low numbers of death sentences and executions were unquestionably affected by court closures and public health concerns related to the coronavirus,” the Death Penalty Information Center report said. “But even before the pandemic struck, the death sentences and executions in the first quarter of the year had put the United States on pace for a sixth consecutive year of 50 or fewer new death sentences and 30 or fewer executions.”

Further chipping away at the death penalty, Colorado this year abolished it as a punishment in state courts and 2020 marked a full decade since Louisiana and Utah had executed anybody.

In Ohio, a moratorium of sorts continued as well.

Gov. Mike DeWine on Dec. 18 announced three more reprieves of convicted killers to execution dates were approaching: Elwood Hubert Jones, Gregory Lott and Archie Dixon

Each of the men was slated to die in 2021. Now the soonest that any will see the inside of the death chamber at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility is 2023.

That brings to 14 the number of reprieves that DeWine has issued. Shortly after taking office in 2019, DeWine delayed one imminent execution after a Federal magistrate in Dayton said Ohio’s execution protocol might amount to cruel and unusual punishment

A federal appellate court later ruled that it wasn’t. But DeWine has delayed all subsequent executions after drugmakers, under media scrutiny, threatened to stop selling the state drugs for any purpose if their products kept winding up in the death chamber.

Earlier this month, DeWine told the Associated Press that lethal injection as an execution method was no longer an option for Ohio.

“It’s no surprise that we’re seeing a shift away from the death penalty, we know the system doesn’t work, but we do know it has made serious errors,” said Hannah Kubbins, executive director of Ohioans to Stop Executions. “The problems inherent in capital punishment were exemplified by this year’s five death-row exonerations. The five men exonerated this year brought the national total of exonerations up to 172. Nine of the 172 men are from Ohio.”

Despite those developments, Ohio still has 141 inmates on death row, the seventh-most of any state.

Also bucking the trend was that President Donald Trump restarted federal executions this year after a 17-year hiatus. The 10 federal prisoners executed so far this year make up more than 20% of all federal prisoners executed in nearly a century.

The Death Penalty Information Center Report provided another bit of historical context.

“For the first time in the history of the country, the federal government conducted more civilian executions than all of the states of the union combined,” it said.

The torrent of federal executions appears to be about to end, however. President-elect Joe Biden ran on a promise to end them.

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