Did Death Sentences in US Increase or Decrease Last Year?

April 7, 2015

2014 death penalty top 5Amnesty International released its annual death penalty report last week, Death Sentences and Executions 2014, which tracks all known use of the death penalty on the planet from the past year. The report shows a large increase in global death sentences of 28%.

But the news isn’t all bad. Here in the United States, the death penalty’s steady decline continues unabated.

The US saw just 72 new death sentences in 2014, down from 80 the year before. Executions were down too, from 39 to 35. The state of Washington placed an official moratorium on executions in 2014 and was promptly joined by Pennsylvania in 2015. While 32 states officially retain the death penalty on the books, seven of these (plus the federal government and the military) have not carried out an execution in 10 years or more.

While the numbers of executions and death sentences tick steadily downward, the number of jurisdictions to abandon the death penalty as a useless and broken system ticks steady upward. These states are figuring out the death penalty is too flawed to fix – from its enormous cost to its racial bias to the ever-present risk of taking an innocent life.

But those tallies of states and executions still don’t tell the whole story: 2014 was a truly momentous year.

To know the whole story, you’d have to talk to Henry McCollum and Leon Brown. The two brothers were sentenced to death in 1984 in North Carolina and served 30 years each, but in 2014 they were exonerated by DNA evidence and released. In fact, you’d have to talk to all seven – SEVEN! – of the innocent men who were exonerated in 2014 after being sentenced to death, and the families they rejoined. By the end of 2014, the total number of exonerated men and women since 1976 stood at a whopping 150 – and within the first three months of 2015, Debra Mike had already made the number 151.

The seven men exonerated in 2014 spent a collective 210 years in prison.

Delving deeper into the numbers widens the picture even further – the question isn’t just how many executions took place, but where did they occur? Only seven states carried out any executions at all, and 80% of all last year’s executions happened in just three states: Texas, Florida and Missouri. That means 43 states had no executions at all.

It’s no coincidence that these three states stand so far outside the national trend. The report documents six separate examples of individuals who were executed or nearly executed in 2014 despite evidence of serious mental illness or intellectual disability – all of them in Texas, Florida, or Missouri. Texas and Missouri executed two individuals each who were African-American men sentenced to die by all-white juries.

Texas has even executed three individuals whose guilt has been seriously called into question: Cameron Todd Willingham, Ruben Cantu, and Carlos DeLuna.

Missouri stands even farther outside the mainstream of the United States than the rest – with 10 executions, it accounts for nearly a third of all US executions in 2014. In late 2013 the state ended a two year hiatus from executions, and it’s back with a vengeance. That resurgence in executions brings tremendous collateral damage: the executions of individuals claiming serious mental illness and intellectual disabilities, and cases infected with racial bias.

That collateral damage is exactly why so many other states have abandoned the death penalty. Some have taken the route of Washington and Pennsylvania and placed moratoriums on executions, while others have abolished it completelysix states since 2007. Seven more states have not carried out an execution in 10 years or more, and there are fewer and fewer executing states each year. These states are seeing that the death penalty is broken beyond repair and are tired of wasting taxpayer money on a system that can’t be fixed.

The grasp of the death penalty is losing its hold on the United States, but not quickly enough. While 35 executions is the lowest in the US in 20 years, it also ranks as the fifth-largest number of executions in the world in 2014 behind China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. The flaws in this broken system are apparent, but a small number of states have chosen to ignore those flaws to the detriment of the entire United States – risking grave injustice and even innocent lives.

The death penalty does not reflect the values of today’s United States – 43 states without executions testify to that. If we are to live out those values of justice, equality and a commitment to human rights, we must end the death penalty in all 50 states.

You can help spread the message on Twitter that the United States is moving away from the death penalty and is ready to abolish this cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment once and for all.