More than half of states in the United States have either abolished the death penalty or implemented formal suspensions, as the country’s use of brutal punishment continues to wither away.
When Virginia became the first southern state to abolish the death penalty in March, it brought the number of states that have abolished the practice altogether to 23. In three other states, governors have imposed a moratorium on executions.
Virginia’s seismic remoteness from judicial assassinations has created a death penalty-free zone on the northeast coast of the United States that stretches from Maine’s border with Canada to the Carolinas edge. A similar area now stretches all along the west coast of the United States.
The growing number of states where the death penalty is no longer welcome is one of the main findings of the annual review of the Information Center on the Death Penalty (DPIC). The report contains nuggets that will make the heart of an abolitionist beat faster, including a record number of new death sentences in 2021 (18) and the fewest executions carried out since 1988 (11).
But there is a powerful prick in the tail. While the penchant for judicial executions generally wanes, states that stick to the death penalty display grotesque aberrations in its application.
“The handful of states that continue to push for capital punishment are outliers that often ignore due process, botched executions and live in the shadow of a long history of racism and a legal system.” criminal bias, ”said DPIC Executive Director Robert Dunham.
Five states, along with the US government, have judicially killed prisoners this year. Seven handed down new death sentences.
Three states have the dubious distinction of standing out in this year’s review – Alabama, Oklahoma and Texas. They alone accounted for half of all death sentences and most of the 11 executions.
Oklahoma botched its first execution in six years, that of John Grant who was seen convulsing and vomiting on the stretcher. The Guardian revealed that another state on death row, Arizona, spent thousands of dollars to obtain hydrogen cyanide for its gas chamber, the same deadly chemical used by the Nazis at Auschwitz.
Racism continues to fall off the statistics, as it has since the early days of capital punishment in the United States with its roots in slavery and racial terrorist lynchings. Ten of the 18 (56%) new death sentences were handed down to prisoners of color, while the same percentage of executed death row inmates (six of 11) were African American.
Reflecting a centuries-old distortion, more than three in four of this year’s murders ending in new death sentences were Caucasian. No non-white victim has been implicated in any case leading to the death sentence of a white person.
Horrors abound in other aspects of the behavior of the mass of death row states. It was a year in which the callous disregard for the mental disabilities of these slain prisoners was a visceral display.
As Ngozi Ndulue, deputy director of the DPIC pointed out, all but one of the prisoners executed this year had serious disabilities, including brain injury or injury, mental illness and intellectual disability, or had a history of neglect and horrific abuse in childhood.
“We are seeing fewer and fewer executions, but those that do occur demonstrate that the death penalty is not reserved for the worst of the worst, but for the most vulnerable of the most vulnerable,” she said.
Perhaps the most powerful argument of all against the death penalty is that it risks killing innocent people, and there was a lot to think about in this regard in 2021. Two death row inmates were cleared during of the year, for the total number of modern-day prisoners awaiting execution to be exonerated up to 186.
DPIC points out that the figure equates to an exemption for eight executions that have taken place in the past 50 years. This year’s two exonerated Eddie Lee Howard and Sherwood Brown were from Mississippi and were cleared using DNA testing after both spending 26 years on death row.
The annual record for 2021 contains a hangover from an earlier era, in the form of the spate of federal government executions in the dying days of the Trump administration. Three people on federal death row were killed in less than 10 days before Joe Biden’s inauguration, as part of Donald Trump’s rush to carry out 13 executions in six months.
Those who died in 2021 at the hands of the Trump administration were Lisa Montgomery, a deeply mentally ill woman who had suffered a life of abuse amounting to torture; Corey Johnson, severely intellectually disabled; and Dustin Higgs who, unquestionably, didn’t kill anyone.
Since Biden took office in January, there have been no further federal executions and in June, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland announced a formal hiatus to give the Justice Department time to review its policies.
Anti-death penalty activists hoped the Biden administration would end the federal death penalty and commute the sentences of the 45 remaining federal death row inmates to life imprisonment. So far, there has been no sign of this happening.