The U.S. executed fewer people in 2016 than in any other year since 1991

Support for capital punishment is at its lowest point in decades.

California protesters demand the end of the death penalty. CREDIT: AP Photo/Eric Risberg
California protesters demand the end of the death penalty. CREDIT: AP Photo/Eric Risberg

Capital punishment in the U.S. is gradually becoming a thing of the past.

Twenty death row inmates were executed in 2016 — the lowest number in 25 years, according to a new report from the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), a non-profit organization that collects and analyzes data on capital punishment. The DPIC projects that 30 new death sentences will have been handed down this year, a 37 percent drop from 2015. Public support for executions is also waning among people of all political and social backgrounds.

The DPIC’s annual findings, published on Wednesday, included an analysis of death penalty trends since the 1970s, when the U.S. Supreme Court abolished and then reinstated capital punishment. The number of executions skyrocketed in the 1990s and peaked in 1999, when 98 people were put to death; since then, there’s been a long-term, downward trend in the number of executions nationwide.

This year was no exception. Executions occurred in five states, the lowest number of states in 33 years. And while the total number of people put to death in 2016 wasn’t record-breaking — there were fewer than 20 annual executions between 1976 and 1984 — it was lower than any year since 1991.


This year also marks the sixth year in a row that fewer than 100 people were sentenced to capital punishment, either by a jury or judge. The 30 people sentenced to die in 2016 was a 43-year low. And no state handed down 10 or more death penalty sentences — the first time that has happened in 40 years.

Both execution and sentencing rates have always been incumbent on geography, according to the DPIC. In 2013, the organization reported that 2 percent of all U.S. counties impose more than half of all death sentences and execute more than half of all people in the U.S. But 2016 data shows that the number of sentences in those counties also dropped by 35 percent since last year.

The latest findings come at a tumultuous time, with President-elect Donald Trump set to take office in January. There is no clear sense of what will come of the bipartisan push for criminal justice reform, or what stance the Trump administration will take on the subject of capital punishment in particular. Based on his past writings, Trump not only favors executions but believes the standard method of killing convicted prisoners is “too comfortable.”

“Would it have been civilized to put Hitler in prison? No–it would have been an affront to civilization,” Trump wrote in his book, The America We Deserve. “The same is true of criminals who prey on innocent people. They have declared war on civilization. I don’t care if the victim is a CEO or a floor sweeper. A life is a life, and if you criminally take an innocent life you’d better be prepared to forfeit your own. My only complaint is that lethal injection is too comfortable a way to go.”


But according to DPIC’s Executive Director Robert Dunham, capital punishment will likely continue to lose steam over time.

“There can be bumps along the way, but the long-term trend is clear, and that is away from the death penalty,” he told ThinkProgress.

National polls by the Pew Research Center and Gallup show that public support for the death penalty is steadily declining, and outright opposition is on the rise. For “the first time in 45 years,” less than half of the country support it, Pew concluded. Gallup put the percentage of support at 60 percent, which still reflects a drop in favorable opinion nationwide.

Polling data from states that disproportionately sentence and execute people — including Texas, Florida, and Oklahoma — show that the majority of their residents favor an alternative to the death penalty, such as life without parole. This year, voters across the country also ousted prosecutors who aggressively prosecuted death penalty cases, including Angela Corey in Duval County, Florida and Devon Anderson in Harris County, Texas — once considered the “death penalty capital of America.”

Dunham attributes declining public support to growing concern about the ethics behind capital punishment.

“There is a point at which the risk of sending an innocent person to death row stops being a hypothetical risk and becomes accepted as a reality,” he said. “We have reached the point where the facts are clear and unequivocal: Innocent people are being wrongly convicted and sentenced to death. There is also significant evidence that innocent people have been executed.”


Since 1973, 156 people sentenced to die have been exonerated. DPIC also identified 13 people who were executed despite “strong evidence of innocence.” And there is still no concrete evidence that killing people actually deters crime. After scouring decades of research about it’s efficacy, the National Research Council was unable to identify a single piece of evidence that the death penalty increased public safety.

People are also less keen to support capital punishment because of how it is being applied.

“The people we’re executing, year after year, don’t look like the worst of the worst. They look like the most mentally or emotionally damaged,” Dunham said. “They look like people who have been convicted of killing favored classes of victims. Mostly, they look like they were prosecuted in the wrong jurisdiction at the wrong time.”

The way executions are administered is also alarming. “States are botching executions, and engaging in secret practices, and trying to shield the inner workings of the death penalty from public scrutiny. That undermines public confidence and trust in both the government and the death penalty,” Dunham said.

Just last week, death row prisoner Ronald B. Smith heaved and gasped for air during his lethal injection. The drug that was supposed to knock him out, midazolam, wasn’t strong enough to render him unconscious. But at no point was there talk of ending the procedure.

“You can think that it’s unfair. You can think that it’s discriminatorily imposed. You can think it costs too much, and you can think that it doesn’t make people safer,” Dunham said. “But if you have a visceral reaction to it, because of the manner in which it’s being carried out, that affects the way you respond when you have to make a decision about whether someone should live or die.”

Altogether, the death penalty is increasingly viewed as an archaic and inhumane practice, and that perception is having an effect in courtrooms across the country. And even with a tough on crime president-elect who has given the green light to commit hate crimes, a reversal of death penalty trends is unlikely, Dunham said.

“I think everyone has concerns about the rise in hate speech and whether the increase in hostility that has been noticeable over the last several months carries over into jury panels,” he said. “We don’t know the answer to that, but when you look at what juries did this year, including during juries in which there was possible political rhetoric, they imposed the death penalty at record lows.”