Gary Drinkard was on death row in Alabama for 6 years before he was exonerated. © Scott Langley
As we approach the end of another year, the time for annual reports is at hand. For the death penalty, this means the yearly report from the Death Penalty Information Center, as well as the year-end report from the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. Both reports show that in 2011 the downward trends we have been observing for several years in the United States continued or even accelerated.
Texas carried out its lowest number of executions (13) since 1996. Nationwide, the 43 executions carried out represented about half the number that were put to death in the year 2000, and U.S. death sentences dropped well below 100 for the first time since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976.
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The Death Penalty Information Center has released its Year End Report (pdf) for 2008. It reveals clearly that the trend towards growing skepticism and diminishing (and more regional) use of capital punishment is continuing. There were 37 executions in 2008, the lowest total since 1994, and there were only 111 death sentences passed. For the second straight year, this was the lowest number of death sentences since capital punishment was reinstated since 1976. (In the peak year, 1999, there were 98 executions and 284 death sentences.)
Four men were exonerated for America’s death rows this year, increasing already substantial public doubts that an imperfect system can, or should, carry out such an irreversible punishment.
Executions this year were also almost exclusively a Southern phenomenon. Depending on your definition of The South – are Kentucky and/or Oklahoma “southern” states? – this region accounted for all but 2, or 4, or 5 executions in 2008. But the dramatic decline in death sentences is taking place in the South just as it is everywhere else in the U.S. (except at the Federal level, where death sentences have doubled since outgoing President Bush took office).
As the report of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (pdf) revealed last week, death sentences in that notoriously execution-friendly state also dropped to a post-reinstatement low, with only 9 sentences recorded in 2008. Of course, Texas continues to execute at an alarming rate (accounting for almost half the executions this year), but to a certain extent execution numbers are a reflection of where the death penalty stood 10 or 12 years ago (the average length of time it takes for a death sentence to be carried out). In another decade, we may see execution numbers in Texas and the rest of the South dropping to the levels they are currently at everywhere else, which is almost zero.