Executions in the United States fell to historic lows in 2020, despite the federal government’s “unprecedented six-month execution spree” in the latter half of the year, according to a year-end analysis of the death penalty released Wednesday.
There were 17 executions in the United States over the past year, down from 22 in 2019 and the fewest of any year since 1991. Additionally, the judicial system handed out 18 new death sentences this year, the lowest figure in more than four decades.
While the COVID-19 pandemic was responsible for delaying some executions and death penalty-eligible trials, the Death Penalty Information Center, which issued Wednesday’s report, said the nation was on pace for a near-record low even before the disruption caused by the pandemic.
“At the end of the year, more states and counties had moved to end or reduce death-penalty usage, fewer new death sentences were imposed than in any prior year since capital punishment resumed in the U.S. in 1970s, and states carried out fewer executions than at any time in the past 37 years,” said Robert Dunham, DPIC’s executive director and the lead author of “The Death Penalty in 2020: Year End Report.”
“What was happening in the rest of the country showed that the administration’s policies were not just out of step with the historical practices of previous presidents, they were also completely out of step with today’s state practices.”
The U.S. Justice Department began conducting executions of federal inmates for the first time in 17 years in July, beginning with the lethal injection of Daniel Lewis Lee on July 14. Another nine federal executions followed, culminating with that of Alfred Bourgeois on Friday.
The federal government carried out the majority of executions in 2020, followed by Texas with three, and Alabama, Georgia, Missouri and Tennessee with one each.
“DPIC’s analysis of historical execution databases indicated that it was the first time in American history that the federal government had executed more prisoners than all of the states combined,” the 36-page report states. “Just five states conducted executions, and only Texas carried out more than one.
“Despite the historically unprecedented federal execution spree, the nationwide total of executions was the lowest in nearly three decades, since eight states carried out fourteen executions in 1991.”
The DPIC described the federal government’s 10 executions over the last six months of 2020 as “historically aberrant behavior” and an “outlier” in recent years’ trends of declining use of the form of punishment.
The federal executions were the most under any presidential administration since President Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose Justice Department executed 10 people over the course of four years. The Trump administration also carried out the first execution during a lame-duck session since President Grover Cleveland in 1889.
Orlando Hall was executed Nov. 19, more than a week after President Donald Trump was projected to lose his re-election bid.
Data show there was a peak in yearly executions in the United States in the late 1990s — 315 in 1996 — before a reduction that’s resulted in fewer than 100 executions each year since 2011.
In recent years, more and more states have abolished the death penalty, including Colorado earlier this year. Others, such as Louisiana and Utah, haven’t carried out any executions in more than a decade.
As of this spring, 34 states have either abolished the death penalty or haven’t carried out an execution in 10 years or more.
And public support for capital punishment is also on the decline. A Gallup poll published in November showed that 55% of Americans support the death penalty, the lowest figure since 1972, when 50% said they supported it.
Multiple states, including Texas and Tennessee, delayed several scheduled executions this year due to the effects of the pandemic, which prevented legal teams from conducting business and put witnesses, prison employees and attorneys at risk.
The pandemic also affected court business. The DPIC projects there will be 18 death sentences in 2020, a 45% decline from the previous record low of 31 in 2016. Most of the death sentences issued this year happened within the first three months, before states began implementing pandemic-related lockdowns.
“Because of the pandemic, these numbers are not meaningful in assessing long-term trends,” the DPIC said in a news release.
Of those executed in 2020, all were either 21 years old or younger at the time of their offense, or had severe mental illness, brain injury, were intellectually disabled or experienced childhood abuse. Nearly half were people of color and 76% involved White victims, the DPIC said.
“Racism has always infected the use of the death penalty and this year is no exception. The death penalty — as the most severe punishment — must be part of the efforts to address racism in the criminal legal system as a whole,” said Ngozi Ndulue, DPIC’s senior director of research and special projects.
The Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty also issued its year-end report Wednesday, finding that the state carried out the fewest executions in nearly 25 years. The organization cited disruptions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic as the reason for the “significantly curtailed use of the death penalty.”
There were three executions in Texas in 2020, down from nine in 2019. While the state issued stays in response to the pandemic, it did carry out one execution in July, that of Billy Joe Wardlow.
“It is shameful that Texas was one of only two states — along with the federal government — to put anyone to death during a global pandemic,” said Kristin Houlé Cuellar, TCADP executive director and author of “Texas Death Penalty Developments in 2020: The Year in Review.”
“The fact that state legislators, juvenile justice advocates, neuroscience experts, and two jurors from Wardlow’s trial had called for a reprieve based on what we know now about adolescent brain development make the circumstances of his arbitrary execution even more appalling.”
The TCADP said the pandemic stopped most in-court proceedings in the state, resulting in only two new death sentences in 2020, the lowest number since 1974.