According to a report released in mid-December by the Death Penalty Information Center, the total population of prison inmates on Death Row has dropped to a 25-year low, falling below 2,500. The report noted the number of inmates nationwide awaiting execution has steadily declined every year since 2001. In 2018, American courts handed down just 41 new death sentences, while the states still allowing capital punishment carried out just 25 executions.
The report was published too early to include the death sentences handed down on December 28, when a panel of Ohio judges sentenced George Brinkman, Jr. to three death sentences, one for each of the women he killed there in a 2017 triple slaying. Except for Cuyahoga County’s giving Brinkman three separate death sentences, 2018 was also the only year in which no U.S. county handed down more than two sentences calling for capital punishment.
Other signs of the decline of capital punishment in America include Washington State becoming the 20th state to ban it, along with the District of Columbia, and eroding support for the perceived fairness of the death penalty: A Gallup poll in October reported only 49% of Americans surveyed agreed the death penalty is “applied fairly,” the lowest level since Gallup started asking that question 17 years ago.
The Death Row population decline isn’t solely attributable to changing public attitudes or and fewer death sentences being handed down. Exonerations of some inmates convicted and sentenced for capital crimes also plays a role, as do lower rates of capital crimes, appellate decisions reversing convictions or reducing sentences, and Death Row inmates dying from other causes.
Yet dwindling public support for the death penalty can be seen not only in public opinion polls, but in election results. In 2018, voters in three states (Illinois, Iowa, and New Mexico) rejected ballot initiatives seeking to restore capital punishment, and Colorado voters selected as their governor Rep. Jared Polis (D), a candidate who campaigned in part on a pledge to end capital punishment in the state. The report also notes Pope Francis’s denunciation of capital punishment this year as further evidence of its declining public acceptance.
Of the 25 executions carried out in 2018, more than half (13) occurred in Texas, up from seven the previous year; the remaining 12 executions were scattered among seven southern or midwestern states, none of which executed more than three inmates, and three of those states recorded fewer executions in 2018 than in 2017. Total executions outside of Texas in 2018 fell to the lowest level since 1991.
Despite the declining numbers of executions, the Death Penalty Information Center’s year-end report claims that death sentences were “disproportionately meted out” last year to particularly vulnerable defendants. It pointed out that at least 11 of the 25 inmates executed in 2018 showed “significant evidence of mental illness,” with at least nine evidencing brain damage or intellectual disability and at least manifesting serious trauma in childhood, and a half dozen were executed for crimes they committed while age 21 or younger.
Christopher Zoukis, author of Federal Prison Handbook, Prison Education Guide, and College for Convicts, is the Marketing Director of Brandon Sample PLC. He can be found online at https://sentencing.net, https://compassionaterelease.com, and https://clemency.com.