DPIC Analysis: Federal Execution Spree Out of Step with U.S. Death Penalty Trends and Attitudes

At a time in which the United States as a whole and individual states and counties have continued their long-term movement away from the death penalty, the federal government’s current execution spree has established it as an outlier jurisdiction out of step with the practices of the nation as a whole.

The federal government has executed five prisoners in less than two months (click to enlarge map), with two more executions slated for September 22 and 24. No state has carried out any executions in that period and none has any planned before the scheduled end of the federal spree. Two-thirds of the way through 2020, U.S. states are on pace to carry out the fewest executions in 37 years. The federal government has already carried out more executions in 2020 than in any other year since capital punishment resumed in the U.S. in the 1970s.

The disconnect between the federal increase in executions and the decrease in state death-penalty usage has no parallel in modern U.S. history.

The June 2020 Gallup Values and Beliefs poll reported the percentage of Americans who say the death penalty is morally acceptable was the lowest in the 20-year history of the poll. 54% said they found capital punishment morally acceptable, down 17 percentage points since 2006. In March 2020, Colorado became the 22nd U.S. state to abolish capital punishment, and in the first half of the year, Louisiana and Utah marked ten years since their last executions. 34 American states — 68% of the Union — have now either formally abolished the death penalty or not put anyone to death in more than a decade.

Against that trend, the federal government resumed executions on July 14, after a 17-year hiatus.

Only five states have carried out executions in the first eight months of 2020, and their collective seven executions project to 10.5 executions for the year. Only Texas and Tennessee currently have any executions scheduled for the remainder of the year. The last time there were fewer than 11 state executions in a calendar year was 1983, when five states put a total of five prisoners to death.

The federal government has never carried out more than five executions in civilian courts in any year since the start of World War II. Five federal prisoners were executed under President Harry S Truman In 1948. On August 8, 1942, the federal government executed six men who had been tried and convicted by a military tribunal on charges of wartime sabotage.

Most states have halted capital trials and executions during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nine scheduled executions have been halted or rescheduled out of public health concerns, seven in Texas and two in Tennessee. Missouri and Texas are the only states to have carried out executions during the pandemic, and though there is no way of proving direct causation, COVID-19 outbreaks were reported several weeks later in the facilities in which the executions occurred. By contrast, the federal government has scheduled seven executions during the pandemic in a facility in which COVID-19 is already present and has belittled the health-related opposition of victims’ family members and spiritual advisors.

Another factor establishing the federal government’s 2020 execution spree as an outlier is the number of consecutive executions for which the government is responsible. Since Texas executed Billie Jo Wardlow on July 8, only the federal government has executed anyone. In the past fifty years, Texas is the only state that has ever executed as many as five people in a row. If the September federal executions go forward, the federal government will have carried out the fourth largest execution spree in that period, trailing the 12, 10, and 8 consecutive executions by Texas January 10 through April 11, 2007, May 16 through June 4, 1997, and October 14 through November 13, 2007, respectively.

Sources

DPIC Analysis by Robert Dunham, September 12020