Reports

Amnesty International 2018 Global Report: Executions Worldwide Fall to Lowest Level in a Decade

Executions worldwide have fallen to their lowest levels in a decade, according to a new report released April 9, 2019 by Amnesty International. In its annual Global Report: Death Sentences and Executions 2018, the human rights organization says it recorded at least 690 executions in 20 countries in 2018, a 31% decline from the 993 executions it recorded in 23 nations in 2017 and 58% below the 1,634 reported executions in 2015. Five countries accounted for 84% of all recorded executions—Iran (253), Saudi Arabia (148), Vietnam (85), Iraq (52) and Egypt (43). Nonetheless, executions in Iran fell by half in 2018, as the country revised its death-penalty law to bar capital punishment for some drug offenses. Data was unavailable for executions in China—where Amnesty says thousands of undocumented executions likely took place—and North Korea, two countries in which information on death sentences and executions is considered a state secret. The 25 executions in the U.S. were the seventh most of any nation.

Amnesty International’s Secretary General Kumi Naidoo called the global decline in executions “dramatic” and said it “proves that even the most unlikely countries are starting to change their ways and realize the death penalty is not the answer.” Although Thailand carried out its first execution in nearly a decade and Japan, Singapore, and South Sudan reported their highest execution levels in years, Naidoo said these “regressive steps” were countered by the significant reduction in executions “carried out by several of the worst perpetrators.”

The report found that global death-sentencing levels in 2018 were similar to those in 2017. Amnesty recorded at least 2,531 death sentences in 54 countries last year, down 2% from the 2,591 reported in 2017. However, death sentences were down 19% from the reported 3,117 death sentences imposed in 55 countries in 2016. The U.S. ranked 12th in death sentences known to have been imposed. Amnesty reported that at least 19,336 people were known to be on death rows around the world at the end of 2018, a 12% decline from the 21,919 people known to be on death row globally at the end of 2017. Only two nations in the Western hemisphere—the United States and Guyana—imposed any death sentences in 2018, the fewest to do so since Amnesty began tracking global death sentences in 1979. For the tenth consecutive year, the U.S. was the only country in the Americas to carry out any executions.

Amnesty characterized the global death penalty as “firmly in decline,” pointing to Burkina Faso’s abolition of the death penalty for ordinary crimes, moratoria on executions declared in the Gambia and in Malaysia, and the Washington state supreme court’s declaration that the death penalty in that state was unconstitutional. At the end of 2018, Amnesty said, 106 countries had abolished the death penalty in law for all crimes and 142 had abolished it in law or practice. In December, a United Nations General Assembly resolution calling for a global moratorium on the death penalty received the support of a record 121 countries, while only 35 nations opposed the resolution. “Slowly but steadily, global consensus is building towards ending the use of the death penalty,” Naidoo said, “but with more than 19,000 people still languishing on death row worldwide, the struggle is far from over.”

NEW PODCAST: DPIC’s 2018 Year End Report

In the latest podcast episode of Discussions with DPIC, members of the DPIC staff discuss key themes from the 2018 Year End Report. Robert Dunham, Ngozi Ndulue, and Anne Holsinger delve into the major death-penalty trends and news items of the year, including the “extended trend” of generational lows in death sentencing and executions, election results that indicate the decline will likely continue, and the possible impact of Pope Francis’s change to Catholic teaching on capital punishment. They explore the reasons for reduced death-penalty usage, highlighting the stories of people who were exonerated in 2018, the theme of executing people with characteristics that make them vulnerable to unfair legal proceedings, and the ongoing controversy surrounding execution methods.

DPIC Executive Director Robert Dunham noted the importance of the shrinking death-row population, saying, “Death row is declining in size even as the number of executions is declining, which suggests that the decline is a result of the erosion of capital punishment, as opposed to it actually being carried out.” He explains the lack of death sentences in several traditional death-penalty states, including Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. “The biggest change is the availability of quality indigent defense,” Dunham said, adding that the adoption of life without parole as a sentencing option has also been a major contributing factor.

Dunham addresses the theme of inadequate legal process, saying that the current system fails to ensure that prisoners’ constitutional rights are fully upheld. “If we want the death penalty in the United States, ... it’s imperative that it be able to accurately assess whether somebody was fairly tried, whether somebody was fairly sentenced, and whether the individual deserves to live or die,” he said. Those procedural failures, and the secrecy that surrounds executions, have created a “distrust” among the public that Dunham predicts with have a “prolonged and lingering effect.” “In 2018, death sentences were down, executions were down for a variety of reasons, but I think one of the reasons that’s going to last and contribute to a continued reduction in the future is that more and more people think that we can’t trust the states to carry it out,” Dunham concluded.

DPIC 2018 Year End Report: Death Penalty Usage Stays Near Generational Lows

The long-term decline of death-penalty use in the U.S. continued in 2018, as a twentieth state abolished capital punishment and executions and new death sentences remained near generational lows. On October 11, the Washington State Supreme Court struck down the state’s death penalty, finding that it was imposed arbitrarily and in a racially discriminatory manner. Washington became the eighth state to legislatively or judicially abolish the death penalty since 2007. According to the Death Penalty Information Center’s 2018 Year End Report, fourteen states and the federal government have imposed a total of 41 new death sentences this year, with one more death sentence anticipated towards the end of the year. Eight states carried out a total of 25 executions.

The executions and death sentences extended a long decline in capital punishment, with fewer than 30 people executed and fewer than 50 sentenced to death in each of the last four years. Before this four-year period, neither had happened in a quarter century. For the first time since death sentencing resumed in the U.S. in 1973, no U.S. county imposed more than two death sentences. The death penalty remained geographically isolated, with most executions carried out in a few southern states. More than half (13) were in Texas, and the nine executions carried out in the rest of the country were the fewest executions in those 49 states since 1991.

The declining usage of capital punishment, however, did not redress concerns about the manner of its application. “Death sentences have been dropping over the course of the last 25 years and the hope always had been that as use of the death penalty declined, it would be imposed in a way that would be less arbitrary and less discriminatory,” Death Penalty Information Center Executive Director Robert Dunham told the Houston Chronicle. “That hasn’t happened, and in many respects it’s gotten worse.” A review of the 2018 executions by DPIC and the Promise of Justice Initiative found that 72% of the prisoners executed showed evidence of serious mental illness, brain damage, intellectual impairment, or chronic abuse and trauma, and four were executed despite substantial innocence claims.

Public opinion polls in 2018 also showed that support for the death penalty remained near historic lows, with 56% of Americans saying they support capital punishment (down from 80% in the 1990s). For the first time since Gallup began asking about the fairness of capital punishment in 2001, fewer than half of Americans (49%) said they believe it is fairly applied. Election results confirmed the reduced public appetite for the death penalty. The three states with death penalty moratoria (Colorado, Oregon, and Pennsylvania) elected governors who will continue those policies. Prosecutors in six counties known for the heavy use of the death penalty were defeated, replaced in most case with candidates who ran on reform platforms pledging to use the death penalty sparingly, if at all. Since 2015, voters in 11 of the 30 most prolific death-sentencing counties have replaced their prosecutors.

“America continued its long-term movement away from the death penalty in 2018,” Dunham said. “Even in the face of inflammatory political rhetoric urging its expanded use, voters showed that the death penalty is no longer a political wedge issue. The reelection of governors who imposed death penalty moratoria, the replacement of hardline pro-death-penalty prosecutors with reformers, and Washington’s court decision striking down its death penalty suggest that we will see even greater erosion of the death penalty in the years ahead.”

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DPIC Releases New Report, “Behind the Curtain: Secrecy and the Death Penalty in the United States”

The Death Penalty Information Center has released a major new report, Behind the Curtain: Secrecy and the Death Penalty in the United States, examining the scope and consequences of secrecy in the application of the death penalty in the United States. The report, released on November 20, 2018, tells the story of the expansion of execution secrecy and the questionable practices that states have attempted to keep from public view. It details how, in their efforts to obtain execution drugs, states have used secrecy laws to conceal evidence that they have broken state and federal laws, deliberately induced contract breaches, lied to or misled legitimate drug suppliers, contracted with shady international suppliers and questionable domestic pharmacies, and swapped drugs with each other without proper storage and transport controls. As a result, an increasing number of executions have been botched: in 2017, more than 60% of executions carried out with midazolam produced eyewitness accounts of the execution going amiss. The report also describes how secrecy laws have undermined the reliability and legitimacy of court proceedings in which prisoners have challenged state execution practices as violating the Constitution’s ban on cruel or unusual punishments. “State officials have suppressed information that could prove prisoners’ claims while simultaneously arguing those claims should be rejected because they are unproven,” the report explains. “Over and over again, states have violated the law in the name of carrying out the law,” DPIC Executive Director Robert Dunham said. “And when the public has uncovered information the states have tried to conceal, it has exposed an ever-expanding scope of misconduct and incompetence. ‘Trust me, I’m the Government,’ is not an acceptable justification for execution secrecy.”

DPIC 2017 Year End Report: Death Sentences, Executions At Near-Historic Lows

Executions and new death sentences remained near historic lows in 2017, and public support for the death penalty polled at its lowest level in 45 years, according to DPIC's annual report, “The Death Penalty in 2017: Year End Report,” released December 14. Both the 23 executions and the 39 projected new death sentences in 2017 were the second lowest totals in more than a quarter-century. Four more people were exonerated from death row in 2017, bringing the total to 160 death-row exonerations since 1973. For the 17th consecutive year, the number of prisoners on the nation’s death rows fell, as the combination of exonerations, non-capital resentencings, and 
deaths by natural causes again outpaced new death sentences 
imposed. The 3-, 5-, and 10-year periods ending in 2017 had the lowest numbers of death sentences of any corresponding periods since 1976, continuing the nation’s long-term decline in the use of the death penalty. “Perhaps more than any place else, the changes in Harris County, Texas are symbolic of the long-term change in capital punishment in the United States,” said Robert Dunham, DPIC’s Executive Director. “For the first time since 1974, the county that has carried out more executions than any other did not execute any prisoner or sentence any defendant to death.” Public support for the death penalty dropped to 55%, according to an October 2017 national Gallup Poll, the lowest since March 1972. Support for the death penalty fell five percentage points nationally and 10 percentage points among Republicans since Gallup's October 2016 poll. Of the 81 scheduled execution dates in 2017, 58 (71.6%) were never carried out, either because of court ordered stays, gubernatorial reprieves or commutations, or rescheduling. The death penalty remains geographically isolated, with two states—Texas and Arkansas—accounting for
 nearly half (48%) of all executions in 2017 and another two states—Alabama and
 Florida—accounting for an additional quarter. More than 30% of the new death sentences nationwide came from just three counties—Riverside, California; Clark, Nevada; and Maricopa, Arizona. Indeed, the 27 new death sentences imposed in the other 3,140 U.S. counties and county equivalents, were fewer than even last year's historic low. The report found that an alarming 90% of the 23 prisoners executed in 2017 presented significant evidence of mental illness, intellectual disability, brain damage, severe trauma, and/or innocence. Four prisoners were executed despite substantial concerns about their guilt. (Click image to enlarge.)

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Report: Deterrence is Based on Certainty of Apprehension, Not Severity of Punishment

The certainty of apprehension, not the severity of punishment, is more effective as a deterrent. So argues Daniel S. Nagin (pictured), one of the nation’s foremost scholars on deterrence and criminal justice policy, in his chapter on Deterrence in the recently released Academy for Justice four-volume study, Reforming Criminal Justice. Reviewing deterrence scholarship since the 1960s and five leading studies from the past two decades, Dr. Nagin concludes that evidence supporting a deterrent effect from "the certainty of punishment is far more convincing and consistent than for the severity of punishment." Moreover, he writes, "[t]he certainty of apprehension, and not the severity of the ensuing legal consequence, is the more effective deterrent." Dr. Nagin is the Teresa and H. John Heinz III University Professor of Public Policy and Statistics at Carnegie Mellon’s Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy and previously chaired the Committee on Deterrence and the Death Penalty for the National Research Council of the National Academies of Science (NAS). In that capacity, he served as co-editor of the 2012 National Academies report, Deterrence and the Death Penalty. Nagin explains in his Academy for Justice chapter that although "certainty must result in a distasteful consequence" for the punishment to be a deterrent, "[t]he consequences need not be draconian, just sufficiently costly, to deter the prohibited behavior." In making policy judgments about the justification for increasingly severe sanctions, he says, "the deterrent return to increasing an already long sentence appears to be small, possibly zero." The 2012 NAS Committee found that "research to date on the effect of capital punishment on homicide is not informative about whether capital punishment decreases, increases, or has no effect on homicide rates" and recommended that those deterrent studies "not be used to inform deliberations requiring judgments about the effect of the death penalty on homicide." A February 2015 study by the Brennan Center for Justice of the dramatic drop in crime in the U.S. in the 1990s and 2000s found that the death penalty had no effect on the decline in crime

NEW RESOURCE: Academy for Justice Report on Reforming Criminal Justice Tackles the Death Penalty

The Academy for Justice has recently released a new four-volume study, Reforming Criminal Justice, featuring research and analysis by leading academics and a wide range of proposals for criminal justice reform. The project, funded with a grant from the Charles Koch Foundation and produced with the support of Arizona State University and ASU's Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, contains more than fifty chapters covering a wide range of subjects within the areas of criminalization, policing, trial procedures, and punishment—including a chapter on Capital Punishment by renowned death-penalty scholars Professors Carol S. Steiker (Harvard Law School) and her brother, Jordan M. Steiker (University of Texas School of Law). The Steikers—authors of the critically acclaimed 2016 book, Courting Death: The Supreme Court and Capital Punishment, explore the challenges in reforming the institution of capital punishment, which they describe as being "in a state of flux and fragility." They attribute the near ten-fold decrease in new death sentences since 1996 and the near 70% decrease in executions since the peak in executions in 1999 to “growing concerns about the fairness, accuracy, and effectiveness of the capital justice process across the United States.” The Steikers point to endemic arbitrariness and unfairness resulting from the wide discretion afforded to prosecutors and juries in death penalty cases. Prosecutorial discretion, they say, has produced “wildly divergent capital charging decisions” between prosecutorial offices, making geography, rather than the circumstances of a murder, the chief determinant of whether a case is capitally prosecuted. In turn, they say, the practice of "death-qualification" allows prosecutors to exclude jurors who oppose capital punishment, and the jurors who are empaneled in capital cases exercise the broad discretion they are afforded to produce unfair sentences disproportionately influenced by irrelevant factors such as race and gender. The Steikers also challenge the notion that the reduced use of the death penalty means it is being used more effectively when it is imposed. They say that the death penalty is not limited to “the worst of the worst,” and so lacks meaningful retributive value, while its continuing arbitrariness impedes any arguable deterrent effect. Indeed, they say, offenders with mental illness are disproportionately represented on death row and continue to be disproportionately executed, despite widespread public support for excluding the severely mentally ill from the death penalty. They further question the accuracy of death-penalty verdicts, citing research that estimates more than 4% of those sentenced to death may be actually innocent. The Steikers argue that these systemic issues are “difficult to adequately address through constitutional regulation or legislative reform,” concluding that “the most appropriate path forward may well be moratorium or repeal, solutions embraced by a growing number of jurisdictions.” For states that opt to retain capital punishment, they recommend three major policy reforms: the establishment of capital defense offices at all levels (trial, direct appeal, and state postconviction) to “improve the delivery of capital representation services” in compliance with the American Bar Association's Guidelines for the Appointment and Performance of Defense Counsel in Death Penalty Cases; centralized state-wide charging processes to combat the politicization of the death penalty by local prosecutors and the resulting geographic arbitrariness in its appliation; and the adoption of legislation to exclude people with severe mental illness from capital prosecution and execution. 

New Report Documents “Dramatic Rise” in Republican Support for Death-Penalty Repeal

"The death penalty is dying in the United States, and Republicans are contributing to its demise," concludes a new report, The Right Way, released on October 25 by the advocacy group Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. The report traces "the dramatic rise in Republican sponsorship of bills to end the death penalty" and the trends that it says helped contribute to this rise. Based on this data, the report says "[m]ore Republican lawmakers are recognizing that the death penalty is a broken policy and taking an active role in efforts to end it." The data in the report reflect both the emergence of Republican leadership in bills to repeal the death penalty and increased bi-partisanship in the sponsorship of these bills. Forty Republican legislators sponsored bills to abolish the death penalty in 2016, the report says, "ten times as many [who] sponsored repeal bills ... in 2000." It also reports that the percentage of repeal-bill sponsors who are Republicans has risen to 31%, a six-fold increase since 2007. The report highlights grassroots, party-level, and religious shifts in Republican views about and activism against the death penalty. In addition to the national Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, conservative anti-death-penalty advocacy groups have formed in eleven predominently Republican "red states." In Kansas, the state Republican Party "removed its death penalty support from the Party’s platform in 2014" in favor of a neutral position and voted down an attempt to restore a pro-death penalty stance in 2016. The report also says Evangelicals are increasingly "forsak[ing] the death penalty," pointing to the public involvolvement of prominent Evangelical leaders opposing state efforts to carry out executions in a number of recent cases and the new policy of position the National Association of Evangelicals, expressing neutrality on the death penalty and acknowledging its flaws. Recent national polls confirm the report's observations. The October 2017 Gallup poll on the death penalty indicated that death-penalty support among Republicans fell by ten percentage points, from 82% to 72%, in the last year, and the Pew Research Center reported a seven percentage-point decline in support for capital punishment between 2011 and 2015 among respondents who described themselves as conservative Republicans. The Right Way highlights the actions of five Republican state legislators' efforts to repeal capital punishment in predominantly Republican states, and addresses the substantive concerns that have given rise to Republican death-penalty opposition. "Plagued by wrongful convictions, high costs, and delays," the report says, "the death penalty has proven to be ineffective and incompatible with a number of core conservative principles. It runs afoul of conservative commitments to limited government, fiscal responsibility, and a culture of life." As renewed pushes to abolish the death penalty move forward in states like Utah and New Hampshire, the Gallup organization suggests that the actions of Republicans may be critical in determining the death penalty's future. It's analysis of this year's poll states: "Thirty-one states, primarily in Republican-leaning regions, allow the death penalty. The likelihood of many of those states changing their laws hinges on whether rank-and-file Republican support for capital punishment remains high or declines in the future."

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