Death penalty lowest since 1991 – Washington Times

Use of the death penalty was reduced to just six states this year, and those states carried out the fewest number of executions in a single year since 1991, according to a report by the Death Penalty Information Center.

Both the number of executions carried out and death sentences imposed significantly declined this year over 2014. Twenty-eight convicts were put to death in 2015, down from 35 in 2014. Meanwhile 49 death sentences were imposed by 14 states and the federal government this year, down from 73 imposed in 2014, according to the report released Wednesday.

The number of annual executions peaked at 98 in 1999, while the number of death sentences handed down in a year peaked at 315 in 1996.

The declines continue a downward trend in use of capital punishment overall but come during a year in which opposition to its use has centered on the means by which the executions are carried out and the intellectual aptitude of several of those put to death.

“The use of the death penalty is becoming increasingly rare and increasingly isolated in the United States,” said Robert Dunham, the author of the report. “These are not just annual blips in statistics, but reflect a broad change in attitudes about capital punishment across the country.”

Generating perhaps the highest level of public scrutiny over the death penalty this year was Oklahoma’s planned execution of Richard Glossip, who was convicted in a murder-for-hire scheme.

A Supreme Court decision in June let Oklahoma go forward with the execution despite the planned use of the chemical midazolam, a sedative that Glossip’s attorneys argued is ineffective at preventing a person from feeling pain, in its three-drug lethal injection cocktail.

The ruling prompted a blistering dissent from Justice Stephen G. Breyer, who said the high court should revisit the question of whether capital punishment is constitutional.

“I believe it highly likely that the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment,” Justice Breyer wrote in his 41-page dissent in the Glossip v. Gross case. “At the very least, the Court should call for full briefing on the basic question.”

Oklahoma officials later halted Glossip’s execution just hours before he was set to be put to death after a mix-up in the three-drug cocktail was discovered. The state had received potassium acetate rather than potassium chloride, the drug used in executions to stop the heart.

Questions have also been raised by opponents of the death penalty regarding the conviction of Glossip, who was convicted of orchestrating the 1997 murder of his boss solely on the testimony of Justin Sneed, who admitted carrying out the murder-for-hire but avoided a death sentence via a plea deal.

Glossip remains on death row. He was one of at least 70 death row prisoners with execution dates scheduled this year who received stays, reprieves or commutations, according to the report.

The center’s report also highlights at least one significant factor that often drives outcry over use of the death penalty — exonerations. Six former death row inmates were exonerated this year — including Anthony Ray Hinton, who was convicted of the 1985 murders of two restaurant workers.

He won a new trial after the Supreme Court intervened last year. Prosecutors this year dropped their case against the Alabama man when new ballistics tests revealed that a revolver recovered from his home, the only evidence that linked him to the crime, did not match evidence recovered at the crime scenes.

“Police and prosecutorial misconduct continued to plague wrongful capital convictions, significantly contributing to at least 12 of the past 14 death-row exonerations,” the Death Penalty Information Center report states.

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