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Is America Closer to Getting Rid of the Death Penalty?

Most states have stopped killing criminals or haven't done so in over a decade, according to a new report.

by Brian McManus
Dec 16 2015, 8:00pm

Dirty-ass lethal injection bed. Photo via Ken Piorkowski via Wikimedia Commons

Over the summer, the Supreme Court upheld the legality of a controversial lethal injection drug, midazolam, in the case of Glossip v. Gross, by a 5–4 margin. The ruling drew its name from Richard Glossip, the possibly innocent 52-year-old Oklahoma man who has evaded execution despite many attempts by the legal system to kill him after he was convicted (for a second time) of orchestrating his old boss's murder in 2004. Along with two other inmates facing execution, Glossip sued the state, claiming midazolam—part of a three-drug cocktail used to execute inmates in Oklahoma—"fails to render a person insensate to pain," was cruel and unusual punishment, and therefore violated the rights granted to them under eighth amendment of the Constitution.

In a scathing dissent of the court's decision, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer questioned the very constitutionality of the death penalty, and wondered if it still had a place in the increasingly progressive place we call America. The annual year-end report from the Death Penalty Information Center for 2015, which dropped Wednesday, suggests it does not—and that our national appetite for execution is at an all-time low.

"A majority of states have either abolished the death penalty altogether or haven't carried out an execution in more than a decade," Robert Dunham, the center's executive director, said in a statement. This fact, along with a downward trend in executions, death sentences, and public support for the death penalty provided further evidence of an emerging national consensus against capital punishment.

This year, states have carried out 28 executions, the lowest total since 1991, the report found. Only six states conducted any executions at all, and just three—Texas, Missouri, and Georgia—accounted for 86 percent of all executions in the US.

New death sentences also shrunk, and were dropped by a third off of last year's already-historic low.

In their dissent, Ginsburg and Breyer were onto something: Public support for the death penalty also fell this year. The 2015 American Values Survey found that a majority of Americans—albeit, a narrow margin, 52 percent—now prefer life without the possibility of parole over the death penalty as a punishment for people convicted of murder. Perhaps that's because six more men and women were exonerated from death rows in 2015, raising the total number of death row exonerations since 1973 to 156.

Executions were put on hold by courts in some states as problems with lethal injections continued to plague the execution process. Oklahoma stayed all executions to explore why the state used the wrong drug in one execution and nearly used it in another. Ohio postponed all executions until at least 2017 because of the unavailability of lethal injection drugs.

In February, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf joined governors in Colorado, Oregon, and Washington by imposing a moratorium on executions in his state over concerns about the application of the death penalty there.

You can read the entire Death Penalty Information Center year-end report for 2015 here.

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