The Death Penalty in 2008: Year End Report

Posted on Dec 10, 2008


Marginalization of the Death Penalty Deepens With 95% of Executions in the South

Economic Concerns Bog Down Capital Punishment System

Executions resumed in 2008 after a de facto moratorium was effectively lifted by the Supreme Court following its decision upholding lethal injection. But only the South returned to regular executions, accounting for 95% of executions carried out in the country in 2008. Almost half of the executions were in Texas. In some states, such as California, Maryland, Delaware and North Carolina, the lethal injection issue remains unsettled, and no executions occurred.

The 37 executions this year marked a 14-year low and continued a downward trend after executions peaked at 98 in 1999. Last year there were 42 executions. New death sentences also remained at their 30-year low. The Bureau of Justice Statistics recently released their count of death sentences for 2007. The 115 sentences in 2007 was the lowest number since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. In 2008, DPIC’s research estimates 111 new death sentences, another decrease in a downward trend that began at the start of this decade. Overall, the annual number of death sentences has dropped by about 60% since the 1990s, when it was close to 300.

Since executions had been on hold for almost eight months (Sept. ‘07-April ‘08) as the Supreme Court considered the lethal injection issue, it was expected there could be a surge of executions in 2008, depending on the Court’s decision in Baze v. Rees. When the Court upheld Kentucky’s lethal injection process in Baze, many execution dates were set. However, stays of execution were frequent as the traditional problems with the death penalty returned. Only 9 states carried out executions in 2008, and only one of those was outside of the south – Ohio.

The latest Gallup Poll (October 2008) indicated that the public still supports the death penalty in theory. Support for capital punishment was 64%, a decline from the 69% support in 2007. The high point for endorsement of the death penalty came in 1994, when 80% supported it. When the death penalty is compared with practical alternatives such as a sentence of life in prison with no parole, support is much lower, with most polls indicating public support for true life sentences to be equal to or greater than support for the death penalty.


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