Pat Sullivan / AP

US executions fall to 20-year low as death penalty politics shift

DNA exonerations, botched executions and declining crime have called into question the wisdom of capital punishment

As 2014 draws to a close, the United States will have executed the fewest inmates since 1994 as public views surrounding capital punishment continue to shift and the act of putting prisoners to death becomes more politically and practically difficult.

There were 35 inmates executed this year, in only seven states, with three — Missouri, Texas and Florida — responsible for 80 percent of them, according to the year-end annual report of the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit group that focuses on capital punishment. Moreover, the number of death sentences handed down this year, at 72, dipped to a 40-year low.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said the historically low numbers are the result of changes that began in the early 2000s, when the advent of DNA testing began exonerating death row inmates and exposed the weaknesses of the justice system. An additional seven former death row inmates were exonerated in 2014, continuing that trend. 

“As the problems with the death penalty were exposed, especially with wrongful convictions, juries became more hesitant to give the death penalty, and prosecutors were more reluctant to seek it,” he said. “The whole system has slowed down because of these problems.”

A growing shortage of drugs typically used in lethal injections — prompted by decisions on moral grounds by the European Union and an American pharmaceutical company to stop supplying the drugs used in executions — has further complicated the process, as death penalty states have scrambled to find suitable alternatives.

That development has led to gruesome botched executions. In Ohio, Dennis McGuire writhed for 26 minutes after he was injected with a combination of drugs that had never been tested. In Arizona the state had to use 15 doses of lethal injection drugs to kill inmate Joseph Wood, who was gasping for breath for nearly two hours before he was pronounced dead.

People executed in the United States, 1994 to 2014

All those issues have begun to change the calculus of death penalty politics, analysts say, as crime around the country has declined and public safety has been a lesser concern among voters.

Governors around the country have been freed to express their reservations about the punishment, without being branded as soft on crime.

“It’s become much more of a gray issue, and it doesn’t have the political clout it used to have in terms of you’re either for victims and law enforcement and the death penalty or you’re weak and against the death penalty,” Dieter said. “Governors have said there’s problems with this punishment.”

In conservative Arkansas, Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe said that he would sign a bill outlawing the practice if legislators sent one to his desk, saying he had a change of heart on the issue after he signed his first death warrant. In 1992 the state’s then-Gov. Bill Clinton made it a point to return to Arkansas from the presidential campaign trail to oversee the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, whose mental competency to understand that he was even on death row was in question.

In Kansas, Republican Gov. Sam Brownback said he has struggled with the issue and that it should be limited to the most extreme cases, when “we cannot protect the society from the individual.” In Ohio, Republican Gov. John Kasich, a supporter of the death penalty, has nonetheless commuted five death sentences to life in prison, citing the need for fair trials. 

Increasingly, there is a conservative case to be made for ending the practice, said Marc Hyden, coordinator for Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty, a coalition formed in 2013, calling capital punishment “another broken government program.” 

“The death penalty is riddled with systemic failure,” he said. “It is not fiscally responsible — it costs millions more than life without parole — and it does not fit within the philosophy of limited government.”

Nonetheless, in certain corners, the death penalty still flourishes. In Oklahoma, where the execution of Clayton Lockett in April went so badly that state officials tried to draw the curtains and cancel it before it was finished, Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican, responded by suspending further executions but also poured $104,000 into renovating the death chamber, according to The Associated Press. Executions are expected to resume there in mid-January, and state legislators are considering approving oxygen deprivation as an execution method.

After executing only two inmates last year, Missouri led the nation in executions this year by putting 10 inmates to death, matching the number carried out by perennial capital punishment leader Texas. The last man to be executed in Missouri — with drugs from a source the state refuses to disclose — was Paul Goodwin, whose petition for clemency was denied by Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, even though Goodwin’s mental competency was called into question.

Echoing the politics that prevailed in the 1990s, Joseph Luby, an attorney with the Kansas City–based Death Penalty Litigation Clinic, said it’s possible death row inmates might have had a better shot at clemency with a Republican governor.

“It’s very hard in a state that is this red to be a Democrat and get elected to statewide office and not be in favor of the death penalty,” he said, noting that the three men controlling the levers of the death penalty in the state for most cases — Nixon, Attorney General Chris Koster and St. Louis prosecutor Bob McCulloch — are all Democrats. “I wonder if perhaps Republicans would have more coverage to occasionally grant mercy and not go out of their way to seem tough on crime.” 

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