Feb 17, 2020 - Politics & Policy

America's dwindling executions

The Trump administration wants to reboot federal executions, pointing to a 16-year lapse, but Pew Research reports the government has only executed three people since 1963.

The big picture: Nearly all executions in the U.S. are done by states. Even those have been steadily dropping for two decades, per the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) — marking a downward trend for all executions in the country.

Data: Pew Research Center, Death Penalty Information Center; Cartogram: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios
Data: Pew Research CenterDeath Penalty Information Center; Cartogram: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Where it stands: Over half of U.S. states that authorize the death penalty haven't used it in at least 5 to 10 years, according to Pew data.

  • 7 states put 22 people to death in 2019, primarily in Texas, according to year-end data from the nonprofit advocacy group Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC).
  • 2019 was America's fifth consecutive year with fewer than 30 executions, per BJS and DPIC data.
  • 3 people have been executed in 2020: One in Texas, one in Tennessee and the latest in Alabama, per DPIC.

Driving the news: Five executions scheduled by the Justice Department are postponed, after the Supreme Court refused to overturn a federal judge's decision that renewing federal capital punishment could violate the Federal Death Penalty Act, per the Wall Street Journal.

  • The January executions of Alfred Bourgeois and Dustin Lee Honken — originally set for Jan. 13 and 15 — have been paused as the injunction against the DOJ's execution renewal works through lower courts.
  • The execution of Lezmond Mitchell was blocked separately by the San Francisco federal appeals court over an ongoing review of possible anti-Native American bias in his case, AP reports.

Of note: Attorney General Bill Barr ordered the DOJ's newly scheduled executions to be carried out with only one drug, pentobarbital. The U.S. government has historically used a three-drug cocktail for lethal injections, per the DPIC — which carry a fraught history.

  • The Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that the sedative midazolam, when used in a three-drug combo for executions, does not violate the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
  • The court's decision followed a botched Oklahoma execution in 2014 that took 40 excruciating minutes and induced a heart attack in the condemned. The Supreme Court had not debated the painlessness of those drugs since 2008, per the Washington Post.
  • The DOJ declared in May that the Food and Drug Administration has no authority to regulate drugs used to carry out the death penalty.

Go deeper: Where the death penalty survives around the world

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