Executions and Support for the Death Penalty Remain Low, Report Finds

Demonstrators at a rally in support of Rodney Reed, whose execution was stayed last week, outside of the governor's mansion in Austin, Texas, on Nov. 17, 2019. Rodney Reed’s death sentence was suspended, but researchers say other current cases raise similar doubt about the guilt of the accused. (Tamir Kalifa/The New York Times)

Mariel Padilla

c.2019 The New York Times Company


Executions, new death sentences and public support for the death penalty in the United States remained at their lowest levels in decades this year as half of the country has abolished the death penalty or imposed a moratorium on executions, according to the annual report of a death penalty research group released Tuesday.

The group, the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit that opposes capital punishment, found that states carried out fewer than 30 executions and imposed fewer than 50 new death sentences for the fifth year in a row, continuing sharp declines since 1999, when there were nearly 100 executions.

California instituted a moratorium on executions, New Hampshire became the 21st state to abolish the death penalty entirely and Indiana has gone a decade with no executions, the report said.

On death row: 2,656

While executions and new death sentences have declined over the years, so have the number of inmates on states’ death rows.

As of July 1, there were 2,656 inmates on death row, according to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, down from 2,738 in 2018, and a peak of 3,593 in 2000.

California, which became the fourth state to institute a moratorium on executions, had the largest number of inmates on death row this year, with 729. Those inmates are now essentially sentenced to life in prison.

Death sentences imposed: 33

Courts imposed 33 new death sentences in 11 states in 2019, but the report projected there would be two to four more by the end of the year. That is down from the mid-1990s, when there were more than 300 death warrants issued per year.

Counties with death sentences imposed: 28

Death sentences this year were imposed in only 28 of the nation’s more than 3,000 counties, one of the lowest figures in decades. Cuyahoga County in Ohio, with three, had the largest number.

Executions in 2019: 22

Seven states carried out 22 executions in 2019, and the federal government had none despite its attempt in July to restart executions after a 16-year hiatus. This year had the second-lowest number of executions since 1991, with 20 executions in 2016 being the lowest.

More than 90% of this year’s executions were carried out in the South: Texas had nine; Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee each had three; Florida two; and Missouri and South Dakota each had one.

Thirty-two states have abolished the death penalty or not carried out an execution in more than a decade.

Americans opposed: 2 of 5

About 2 out of 5 Americans oppose the death penalty, according to polls by the Pew Research Center and Gallup. (In 1995, that number was less than 1 out of 5 Americans.) About 60% of those surveyed by Gallup said they preferred life without parole to the death penalty, the highest figure since Gallup started tracking public support more than three decades ago.

Exonerated inmates: 2

Two men, Clifford Williams Jr. in Florida and Charles Ray Finch in North Carolina, who were both sentenced to death in 1976, were exonerated this year after spending more than 40 years in prison.

There are now 166 documented death row exonerations, the report said.

With 24 stays or injunctions, courts halted more executions in 2019 than the states carried out, the report said. Of the 65 scheduled execution dates set, more than 60% did not go forward, including that of Rodney Reed, whose high-profile case drew support from Texas lawmakers and celebrities like Rihanna and Kim Kardashian West.

In addition to the stays and injunctions, 13 Ohio inmates received reprieves as a result of lethal-injection concerns, and three inmates died before they could be executed, the report said.

The Death Penalty Information Center, which is based in Washington, is funded by individual donors and the Roderick MacArthur Justice Center, the Open Society Foundations, Atlantic Philanthropies, the Death Penalty Project, a Proteus Action League initiative and M. Quinn Delaney.