Capital punishment is declining in America, but some states and the federal government continue to execute prisoners, according to a study by the Marshall Project.
“More than five years of immersion in the death penalty allowed us to unearth new truths about the criminal justice system and the erratic ways it metes out punishment,” said the study’s authors.
The report, called The Next to Die, examined the 120 state and federal executions conducted between August 2015 and February 2021.
Capital punishment remains legal in 27 states, though only 11 actually carried out executions during the period studied. Four other states — Arizona, South Carolina, Nevada, and Oklahoma — saw scheduled executions postponed or reversed by the courts.
“While there can be long stretches in individual states between executions when you look at the country as a whole, capital punishment is far from extinct,” the study said. “One reason the death penalty endures is that some states — mostly in the South — pursue it with particular fervor.”
Texas, for example, carried out 570 total executions since the U.S. reinstated capital punishment in 1976 — more than the other top seven states combined. Texas continues to lead the nation with 43 executions carried out during the period studied, while Georgia, in second place, had about half that many.
In the final year of former President Donald Trump’s administration, the federal government put 13 people to death, ending a years-long hiatus.
But The Next to Die report did more than simply track death statistics; the authors sought to humanize both the condemned and their victims.
“We wanted to tell the stories of the people facing death and the lives lost in the crimes for which they were convicted,” said the report. “In the process, we hoped to better understand how our courts and prisons dispense their most severe punishment.”
Indeed, the death penalty in America is evolving. Legal battles, appeals, and a series of federal Supreme Court decisions have narrowed who can be sentenced to death, excluding the very young, mentally ill, intellectually disabled, and cases of apparent racial bias.
Systemic racism has lately gained the consideration of courts and lawmakers alike, according to the study. About one-third of those put to death were Black Americans, a disparate number given that Black Americans make up about 13% of the population.
On its downward slide in popularity, capital punishment has recently been abolished in such states as Virginia and Colorado, with the condemned having their sentences commuted to life without parole. Other states, including California and Pennsylvania, have placed moratoriums on executions, the study says.
Pharmaceutical companies have also refused to provide drugs used in lethal injections. Some states have had to speed up their execution schedules before their inventory of death drugs expired, or have had to borrow unexpired drugs from other states. In response, Nebraska has turned to fentanyl for at least one execution, and South Carolina recently brought back the firing squad as a means of carrying out death sentences.
“Lethal injection appears to us to be impossible from a practical point of view today,” said Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, blaming the drug shortage for his state’s unofficial suspension of the death penalty.
Some victims and survivors find the decline in executions frustrating, says Ohio Representative Bill Seitz.
“In their minds, justice is being delayed and delayed,” Seitz said.