Death penalty usage declined in US in 2019: group

Agence France-Presse

Posted at Dec 18 2019 03:51 AM

A pedestrian walks past death penalty protesters before the formal sentencing of convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev at the federal courthouse in Boston, Massachusetts, June 24, 2015. Dominick Reuter, Reuters/File

WASHINGTON—Usage of the death penalty continued to decline in the United States in 2019, an anti-death penalty group said on Tuesday, with 2 states backing away from capital punishment amid high-profile exonerations of inmates sentenced to die.

This year's 22 executions were the second-lowest since 1991, while California halted executions and New Hampshire abolished the punishment completely, the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) said in its annual report.

However, "2019 came close to being the year of executing the innocent," Robert Dunham, DPIC’s executive director said in a statement.

Two executions were postponed due to serious doubts about the guilt of the convicts, among them Rodney Reed, whose case had received support from elected officials, celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Beyonce along with millions of Americans.

Two other convicts sentenced to death were exonerated after more than 40 years behind bars, bringing to 166 the number of death row inmates recognized as innocent by the court, according to DPIC's annual report.

But Dunham also said 2 prisoners were executed "despite substantial doubts as to their guilt."

"Our courts and public officials too frequently flat out ignore potentially deadly mistakes, and often take steps to obstruct the truth," he said. "That is one of the reasons why public support for the death penalty continues to fall."

For the first time, Gallup found this year a majority of people, 60 percent, preferring life imprisonment for murder convictions to the 56 percent who supported the death penalty.

Thanks to a steady stream of legal challenges along with difficulties in procuring execution supplies, only 7 US states, mostly in the south, carried out the death penalty this year. Texas's 9 executions were the most by a single state.

This year's overall tally of 22 executions was the lowest since 2016, when 20 convicts were executed, compared to a modern peak of 98 executions in 1999.

President Donald Trump has said he wants to resume executions at the federal level after a 16-year pause, but a judge earlier this month halted that effort.

The DPIC report also found the number of new death sentences passed remains at a historic low with 35 to 37 sentences expected by the end of the year.