Death sentences reached their lowest level in the modern era and executions hit a generational low despite an historically anomalous federal execution spree, according to the 2020 Year End Report from the Death Penalty Information Center. As the nation grappled with a deadly pandemic and experienced a reawakening on racial justice, most states put trials and executions on hold. At the same time, ignoring public health warnings and bucking national trends, the federal government carried out ten executions in the space of five months, more federal civilian executions than in any calendar year dating back to the 1800s. For the first time in U.S. history, the federal government executed more people than all the states combined.

With Colorado’s repeal of its capital punishment statute in March, 22 states have now abolished the death penalty. Louisiana and Utah both reached 10 years with no executions, bringing the number of states that have ended capital punishment or have had no executions in at least a decade to 34. Popular support for the death penalty has continued to wane, matching the half-century low of 55% set in 2017. Opposition reached the highest level since 1966, at 43%. Local voters across the country assured future reduced use of the death penalty, electing reform prosecutors in major death-penalty jurisdictions including Los Angeles County, CA; Orange-Osceola Counties (Orlando), FL; Franklin County (Columbus), OH; and Orleans Parish (New Orleans), LA. More than 12% of the nation’s death-row prisoners come from counties that elected reform prosecutors this year.

The federal government’s aberrational use of the death penalty marked it as an outlier amidst the national trend away from the practice. The year’s ten federal executions included the first Native American ever executed by the federal government for a murder of a member of his own tribe on tribal lands; the first federal executions of teenaged offenders in 68 years; the first federal execution in 57 years for a crime committed in a state that had abolished the death penalty; the first lame-duck executions in more than a century; and executions carried out against the wishes of victims’ family members, trial or appellate prosecutors in the cases, and at least one of the judges who presided at trial. The executions sparked outbreaks of COVID-19 by bringing dozens of execution staff, security personnel, attorneys, media, and other participants into close contact. “What was happening in the rest of the country showed that the administration’s policies were not just out of step with the historical practices of previous presidents, they were also completely out of step with today’s state practices,” said Robert Dunham, Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

Every prisoner executed in 2020 either had a significant mental impairment (serious mental illness, brain damage or IQ in the intellectually disabled range, or chronic trauma) or was a teenager at the time of the crime. The year’s executions also highlighted numerous systemic problems in the application of the death penalty, including racial bias, the violation of Native American tribal sovereignty, disregarding the wishes of victims’ family members, ineffective representation, and inadequate appellate review.

Six* people were exonerated from death row, bringing the total number of exonerations since 1973 to 172. The exoneration cases this year featured many hallmarks of wrongful convictions: prosecutorial misconduct, junk science, racial bias, and eyewitness misidentification.

As of December 15, only seven states – Alabama, California, Florida, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Texas – had imposed death sentences this year, with one penalty-phase trial under way in Pennsylvania. Only three states – California, Florida, and Texas – imposed more than one new death sentence. The fifteen counties that have imposed death sentences represent less than half a percent of all U.S. counties.


The Death Penalty in 2020: Year End Report, DPIC, December 16, 2020. Read DPIC’s press release accom­pa­ny­ing the report.

*Updated to reflect the exon­er­a­tion of Roderick Johnson in Pennsylvania.