DPIC Analysis: Record-Low Death Sentencing in Most of the Country in 2018

The continuing decline of capital punishment was on display in most of America in 2018. As we reported in The Death Penalty in 2018: Year End Report, our annual review of death-penalty developments in the country, new death sentences and executions remained near historic lows in 2018 and the number of prisoners on death rows across the country decreased for the eighteenth consecutive year. The decline has been deep and persistent. New death sentences are down 85% from the peak of more than 300 death sentences per year from 1994 through 1996 and executions are down 75% from the peak of 98 executions in 1999.

But what is remarkable about this year’s numbers is not so much the depth of the decline, but its breadth and persistence. 2018 marked the fourth consecutive year with fewer than 30 executions and fewer than 50 new death sentences, after a quarter century when neither had occurred. For the first time in the modern history of the U.S. death penalty—since states began reinstituting capital punishment in 1973—no county anywhere in the U.S. imposed more than two new death sentences. Also for the first time in 25 years, the number of prisoners facing active death sentences fell below 2,500. This decline occurred in states across the country, and almost always because court reversals of death sentences continued to outstrip new death sentences imposed.

DPIC's continuing analysis of this year's death sentences revealed another stunning fact:  while capital punishment persists in a number of increasingly isolated pockets in the U.S., it is vanishing in most of the rest of the country. A judicial ruling abolished Washington’s death penalty in October, making it the eighth state to end capital punishment since 2007. And in most of the country, where the death penalty remains, it is being imposed in record low numbers.

Record Low Death Sentences

Nineteen of the 31 states that authorized the death penalty at the beginning of the year (more than 60%) set or matched record lows for the number of death sentences imposed in the modern era of U.S. capital punishment. 17 of those states imposed no death sentences at all, which—including the 19 states that had no death penalty at the start of the year—meant that 36 states (72% of the country) did not impose a death penalty in 2018. For the fourth consecutive year, more death-penalty states imposed no death sentences than imposed any death sentences. California imposed only five new death sentences in 2018, the lowest of any year since the state brought back capital punishment in 1978. Pennsylvania imposed a single new death sentence (which the trial judge has indicated will be overturned because of the jury's failure to consider mitigating evidence), tying its record-low from 2016. Collectively, those two states have 900 prisoners on death row—one third of the total nationwide. The six death sentences between them account for only 14% of this year’s death sentences.

  • Montana has not had a death sentence since 1996.
  • Wyoming has gone 14 years without any death sentence (2004).
  • New Hampshire and Utah have now gone a decade without any new death sentences (the last were in 2008). 
  • Virginia has gone 8 years without a new death sentence (2010).
  • Idaho has had no death sentences seven of the last eight years.
  • Washington had not had a death sentence in five years before its Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional.
  • GeorgiaIndianaKentuckySouth Carolina, and South Dakota have gone four years without a death sentence.
  • Missouri has gone five years without a jury-imposed death sentence.
  • KansasNorth Carolina, and Oregon have gone two years since their last death sentences (2016). It was the first time ever North Carolina had gone two consecutive years without a death sentence and the state has imposed only one new death sentence in the past four years.
  • Louisiana has had 1 or 0 death sentences each of the past four years. 
  • Oklahoma's single new death sentence imposed in 2018 is the third fewest in the modern history of capital punishment. Each of the last ten years ranks among the lowest 11 death-sentencing years in the modern history of the death penalty in the state.
  • Tennessee had one death sentence.  It is the only death sentence in the past four years.

Every state in the West, except for Arizona, imposed a record low number of death sentences. And the two new death sentences imposed in Arizona were one off the record low of one, set just two years ago. 

The declines from the states' peak death sentencing years were huge. The states below are listed in order of the size of their death rows:

  • #1 California had a record low. The five death sentences in 2018 were 38 fewer than the record high (43) in 1999.  The previous low of 7 was in 1978.
  • #2 Texas, with 7 new death sentences, was down 41 from its peak of 48 in 1999.
  • #3 Florida, with 7 new death sentences, was down 38 from its peak of 45 in 1991.
  • #4 Alabama, with 3 new death sentences, had its second fewest death sentences in the modern era, one above its record law of 2, set in 2017. New death sentences were down 22 from their peak of 25 in 1998.
  • #5 Pennsylvania imposed one new death sentence, tied with 2016 for the lowest since the state brought back its death penalty in September 1978, and 20 below its record high (21) in 1988 and 1994. Each of years 2015-2018 ranks among the four lowest death-sentencing years in the Commonwealth in the modern era.
  • #6 (tie) North Carolina had a record low (no death sentences). The U.S. Supreme Court declared the state’s mandatory death penalty unconstitutional in 1976. The record high since then was 34 in 1995.
  • #6 (tie) Ohio, 4 imposed, one still pending as of December 27, will be down either 20 or 21 from the 25 imposed in 1977 (the last year for which DPIC has Bureau of Justice Statistics numbers for the state).
  • #8 Arizona, 2 death sentences, had its third fewest new death sentences ever. It was down 14 from its high of 16 in 1979.

Death sentencing also declined dramatically in the outlier counties that historically had accounted for the most death sentences imposed in the country. DPIC's review of death row nationwide at the end of 2012 found that 2% of all the counties in the U.S. accounted for 56% of everyone then on death row in the country. In 2018, those 2% counties accounted for 17 of the 42 new death sentences (40.5%). To get a better picture of what that means, those counties would have had to nearly double the number of new death sentences imposed (15 more death sentences), with the rest of the country imposing no more, to have reached the 56% number this year.

The chart below sets forth in more detail the recent state death sentencing numbers. The data from the last five years were compiled by DPIC. The data from the years 2013 and earlier are from the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics. You can review the full chart, with BJS data dating back to 1977, here: https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/death-sentences-united-states-1977-present.

 

State 2018 2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 5-yr Ave All-time high Last yr w/lower sentence
Northeast
New Hampshire 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 (2008) None
(last death sentence imposed in 2008)
Pennsylvania 1 2 1 2 4 4 2.6 21 (1994, 1988) 1978 = 0*
Midwest
Indiana 0 0 0 0 1 3 0.8 10 (1985) None
(last death sentence imposed in 2014)
Kansas 0 0 1 1 0 0 0.4 2 (2008, 2002) None
(last death sentence imposed in 2016)
Missouri 1 1 0 0 0 3 0.8 17 (1988) 2016 = 0
Nebraska 2 1 0 0 0 0 0.2 4 (1978) 2017 = 1
Ohio 5 1 4 1 3 4 2.6 25 (1977) 2017=1
South Dakota 0 0 0 0 1 1 0.4 2 (2011, 2001) None
(last death sentence imposed in 2014)
South
Alabama 3 2 3 6 4 5 4.0 25 (1998) 2017=2
Arkansas 2 1 1 2 2 0 1.2 12 (1981) 2017=1
Florida 7 3 3 9 11 15 8.2 45 (1991) 2017=3
Georgia 0 0 0 0 1 0 0.2 15 (1987) None
(last death sentence imposed in 2014)
Kentucky 0 0 0 0 1 0 0.2 8 (1986) None
(last death sentence imposed in 2014)
Louisiana 1 0 0 1 3 0 0.8 12 (1997, 1995) 2017=0
Mississippi 2 1 0 1 1 2 1.0 13 (1981) 2017=1
North Carolina 0 0 1 0 3 1 1.0 34* (1995) None
(last death sentence imposed in 2016)
Oklahoma 1 2 1 3 2 1 1.8 16 (1996, 1986, 1984) 2011=0
South Carolina 0 0 0 0 1 0 0.2 13 (1986) None
(last death sentence imposed in 2014)
Tennessee 1 0 0 0 1 0 0.2 12 (1991) 2017=0
Texas 7 4 4 2 11 9 6.0 48 (1999) 2017=4
Virginia 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 10 (1994) None
(last death sentence imposed in 2011)
West
Arizona 2 4 1 3 3 4 3.0 16 (1979) 2016=1
California 5 11 9 14 14 25 14.6 43 (1999) 1977=0
Colorado 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 (1987, 1977) None
(last death sentence imposed in 2010)
Idaho 0 1 0 0 0 0 0.2 7 (1984) 2017=0
Montana 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 (1996, 1992, 1988) None
(last death sentence imposed in 1996)
Nevada 0 4 1 2 0 2 1.8 11 (1995) None
(last death sentence imposed in 2017)
Oregon 0 0 1 0 1 0 0.4 11 (1988) None
(last death sentence imposed in 2016)
Utah 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 3 (1989) None
(last death sentence imposed in 2008)
Washington 0 0 0 0 0 1 0.2 4 (1978) None
(last death sentence imposed in 2013)
Wyoming 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 3 (1982) None
(last death sentence imposed in 2004)

— Robert Dunham
December 28, 2018