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Tuesday evening will likely mark the 28th and final execution of 2015. The yearly total has been dropping since a high of 98 in 1999. Taking into account the high cost of death penalty trials, the rise of life-without-parole sentences, and the emergence of conservative opposition to capital punishment, many observers believe the death penalty is in decline.
But below the surface statistics, 2015 was a particularly rowdy year in the legal and political life of capital punishment. Some state officials and activists pushed back against the trend of fewer executions and death sentences, setting up battles that will surround the death penalty in 2016.
To learn more, join Gabriel Dance, managing editor of The Marshall Project, The Intercept’s Liliana Segura and me for a Reddit chat on Tuesday, Dec. 8, at 12:30 p.m. ET. We will be taking questions on the death penalty and lethal injection in 2015 and onward into 2016. We’ll update this post with a link to the chat when it’s live.
If you can’t make the chat, submit question in advance on Facebook or Twitter with #AskTMP Tweet #AskTMP
Gearing up for the chat, here are some major takeaways from 2015 to consider:1. Executions are down.
By year’s end, the number of executions is on track to stay below 30, down from 35 last year and less than a third of the historic high of 98 executions in 1999. One major reason for this drop is the struggle faced by many state prison agencies in obtaining lethal injection drugs.2. New death sentences are also dropping.
Nebraska abolished the death penalty entirely this year. Texas sent three men to death row, down from 11 in 2014. According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Ohio prosecutors chose to pursue capital murder charges in 19 cases this year, a drop of 77% since 2010.3. Pushing against these trends, a pro-death penalty movement began to coalesce this year.
After the Nebraska legislature voted to abolish the punishment, a group began gathering signatures over the summer to support a public vote to potentially bring it back. In the fall, California district attorneys announced a campaign to speed up appeals and save the death penalty in their state. In Louisiana, Caddo Parish prosecutor Dale Cox gained notoriety as a death penalty spokesman after he announced that his state should “kill more people” (In November, he was voted out of office.)4. Many prison agencies pushed to make their death chambers more active.
With executions dwindling, some prison agencies continued to pursue new lethal injection drugs — including attempts to get drugs from overseas — and some were successful, rebooting their execution chambers and bucking the national decline. Missouri carried out six, making the state the nation’s leader in executions per capita for the second straight year. Georgia carried out four executions, and if the state carries out a fifth — scheduled for Tuesday — it will be the highest number since 1987.5. And the Supreme Court blessed these efforts to find new drugs.
In June, they decided the case Glossip v. Gross, one of the highest-profile capital cases in the last several years. The court ruled that the drug midazolam — which had been implicated in several botched executions — did not violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. At oral argument, Justice Samuel Alito accused defense attorneys of mounting a “guerilla war against the death penalty” by blocking state efforts to get execution drugs. Once midazolam was cleared, Florida used the drug in an October execution.6. Outside the Supreme Court, the year saw a striking level of ambivalence at the highest levels of national politics.
In an interview with The Marshall Project, President Obama called the death penalty “deeply troubling,” while Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush — who, as governor of Florida, oversaw 21 executions — felt comfortable telling a reporter, “It's hard for me, as a human being, to sign the death warrant.”7. Anti-death penalty lawyers seized on this ambivalence.
Encouraged by a dissent in the Glossip case by Justice Stephen Breyer, they began pushing the Supreme Court to consider whether the death penalty is “cruel and unusual punishment” and violates the 8th Amendment.
Going into 2016, we know those petitions will continue. We don’t know, however, if the nation’s highest court will take on the issue.