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US capital punishment continued to decline this year, report finds

Just as in 2020, only the federal government and five states, most of them in the South, executed people in 2021.

(CN) — Capital punishment is waning in the U.S. with executions, death sentences and public support hitting historic lows in 2021. But racial inequities persist as Black men made up the majority of those put to death, according to an annual report by the Death Penalty Information Center.

Calling it the “right thing to do, the moral thing to do,” Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, signed a bill in March abolishing the death penalty in the state.

“With Virginia’s abolition, a majority of U.S. states have now abolished the death penalty (23) or have a formal moratorium on its use (3). An additional ten states have not carried out an execution in at least ten years,” according to DPIC’s 2021 year-end report.

Just as in 2020, only five states, most of them in the South, and the federal government executed people in 2021, continuing a trend of geographic isolation in the use of the death penalty.

“Texas and the U.S. government each executed three people, Oklahoma executed two, and three additional states—Alabama, Mississippi and Missouri—each executed one person,” the report states.

Former President Donald Trump’s administration made policy changes that led to the execution of 13 federal prisoners in 2020 and 2021, including six between the Nov. 3, 2020, election and President Joe Biden’s inauguration Jan. 20, the most ever in the U.S. during a presidential transition period, according to the report.

The conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court enabled the federal government’s run of executions by lifting lower court injunctions or stays and denying stay requests in other cases.

After the high court authorized the Jan. 16 execution of federal prisoner Dustin Higg, a 48-year-old Black man convicted of murdering three women – the last in Trump’s tenure – Justice Sonia Sotomayor called out her conservative colleagues for a pattern of ruling in favor of the Trump administration in death penalty cases via emergency orders without oral argument.

“Over the past six months, this court has repeatedly sidestepped its usual deliberative processes, often at the government’s request, allowing it to push forward with an unprecedented, breakneck timetable of executions,” Sotomayor wrote in a dissenting opinion.

“Throughout this expedited spree of executions, this court has consistently rejected inmates’ credible claims for relief,” she continued.

The federal prisoners executed in January included Lisa Montgomery, 67, whose attorneys said in motions for competency hearings was experiencing a “deteriorating mental condition” leaving her unable to “to understand she will be executed, why she will be executed, or even where she is.”

Montgomery, the first woman to be executed by the federal government in 67 years, had a tragic childhood in which her mother’s boyfriend sexually abused her and her mother sexually trafficked her to plumbers and electricians as payment for home repairs.

The government has not executed anyone since Biden took office, and Attorney General Merrick Garland announced on June 1 a moratorium on federal executions pending a review of policy changes made by the Trump administration.

The spate of federal executions underscored the gulf between the United States and Europe.

Forty-seven European countries, including Russia, bar capital punishment in accordance with the European Convention on Human Rights. The United Kingdom and France have not executed anyone since 1964 and 1977, respectively.

“The U.S. is the only Western democracy that still allows the death penalty. And the long-term trends are heading towards abolition. But with this current Supreme Court I think it is unlikely any time soon," DPIC's Executive Director Robert Dunham said in a phone interview.

In Gallup's annual crime survey, 54% of respondents said they were in favor of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder, the lowest percentage since March 1972, three months before the Supreme Court's decision in Furman v. Georgia wherein it banned executions nationwide after deeming unconstitutional the death penalty statutes of several states, Dunham noted.

“So both the practices at the trial level and public opinion put the United States in the same position it was at the time that the court struck down capital punishment. What’s different is the composition of the court. . . . I think there’s no question that the court does not reflect the views of the country as a whole and it’s oriented farther to the right than mainstream America is," Dunham explained.

Though U.S. executions peaked at 98 in 1998 after the high court's 1976 ruling in Gregg v. Georgia lifted its ban on capital punishment, the DPIC report shows a marked decline in American juries and prosecutors doling out and seeking the death penalty.

“As of December 13, 18 people had been sentenced to death in 2021, matching the record low since the beginning of the modern era of the death penalty in 1972… The 11 executions carried out this year were the fewest since 1988,” the group said in a press release.

“The pandemic contributed to these historically low numbers, but the long-term trend remained consistent: 2021 marked the seventh consecutive year where there were fewer than 50 death sentences and 30 executions,” it added.

The national trend is perhaps best reflected in Harris County, Texas, home of Houston.

Since 1982, 130 prisoners convicted in Harris County have been executed, more than any state in the country other than Texas, according to a new report from the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

The executions earned Harris County the nickname “death penalty capital of the world." But the coalition’s report noted just one of the three Texas prisoners put to death this year, Rick Rhoades, was sentenced in Harris County.

The coalition’s executive director, Kristin Houlé Cuellar, told Houston’s NPR affiliate that Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, a Democrat who took office in January 2017, has sought the death penalty much less often than her predecessors.

“Ogg has pursued the death penalty in two cases since she was first elected (in 2016) … This is part of a trend that started a bit before her but has certainly been reflected during her time in office,” Houlé Cuellar said.

Racial disparities persist in U.S. capital punishment, the DPIC report found.

“Sentences and executions disproportionately involved victims who were white and female. Once again, only defendants of color were executed for cross-racial murders and no white defendant was sentenced to death in a trial that did not involve at least one white victim,” the nonprofit says in its 45-page report.

It also notes of the 18 people sentenced to death in 2021, the majority are Black (six) and Latino (four).

“More than three quarters of the cases (14, 77.8%) involved at least one white victim and thirteen (72.2%) involved only white victims. Five of the six death sentences imposed on Black defendants (83.3%) were for interracial murders, four involving only white victims,” the report states.

Two Mississippi death row inmates were exonerated in 2021, raising the total number of exonerees to 186 of the more than 9,600 death sentences imposed since the early 1970s, "one for every 8.3 executions in the modern era," the report states.

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