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90 percent of all executions in 2017 may have involved people who were innocent or had disabilities

Researchers found evidence of mental illness, intellectual disability, or possible innocence in 90 percent of death penalty cases.

In this Nov. 2005 file photo, Larry Greene, public information director of the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility, demonstrates how a curtain is pulled between the death chamber and witness room at the prison in Lucasville, Ohio. CREDIT: AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato, File
In this Nov. 2005 file photo, Larry Greene, public information director of the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility, demonstrates how a curtain is pulled between the death chamber and witness room at the prison in Lucasville, Ohio. CREDIT: AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato, File

New research shows significant evidence of mental illness, brain damage, intellectual disability, severe trauma, or possible innocence in nearly 90 percent of capital punishment executions carried out in 2017, according to a report compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center.

The report found a continued overall decline in the use of the death penalty and approval of the death penalty in 2017 — however, the DPIC noted red flags in 20 of the 23 cases that did result in the death penalty. According to the DPIC’s year-end report, six people executed had significant evidence of mental illness, 10 had significant evidence of brain injury or brain damage, and 18 had evidence of serious childhood trauma, neglect or abuse. Several had evidence of multiple impairments.

Additionally, the report found that five of the 23 people who were executed this year had received “glaringly deficient legal representation” or were denied substantial judicial review.

“If you’re going to have a death penalty, you want it to be administered in a way that’s fair, and if you believe that there should be a death penalty, it should be reserved for the worst of the worst cases and the worst of the worst defendants,” DPIC executive director Robert Dunham said in an interview with ThinkProgress Wednesday. “That’s not who was executed. The death penalty appears to be carried out not on the worst of the worst, but the most vulnerable.”

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The report also found that whether or not a person is sentenced to death has more to do with where the crime was committed than the crime itself. Seventy-four percent of the executions carried out in 2017 took place in just four states: Texas, Arkansas, Florida, and Alabama.

“We’ve been saying for years that the death penalty is an arbitrary lottery,” Dunham said.

But executions are a lagging indicator, and new death sentences show that the “buckle of the death belt” is shifting to the southwest.

Dunham told ThinkProgress Wednesday that, after finishing the report, he broke down additional numbers and found that, in 99.9 percent of communities, there were fewer new death sentences than ever before. But 2017 still ended up resulting in only the second-fewest number of death sentences in the last quarter century.

Just three counties — one tenth of one percent of counties in the United States — Riverside County, California; Maricopa County, Arizona; and Clark County, Nevada — were responsible for 30 percent of all new death sentences. That should raise major red flags, Dunham said, noting that those counties often had other unfair criminal justice practices that contributed to the statistics.

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The DPIC’s year-end report did include some good news: Harris County, Texas, the country’s most prolific county for executions, neither executed nor sentenced anyone to death for the first time since 1974.

“I think [Harris County] is symbolic,” Dunham said Wednesday.

Additionally, recent polling shows that just 55 percent of Americans support capital punishment, the lowest level in 45 years.

Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to Riverdale County, California. It is Riverside County.