U.S. on Track for Fewest Executions, New Death Sentences in a Generation

Both executions and new death sentences in the United States are on pace for significant declines to their lowest levels in a generation, Reuters reports. With 25 executions conducted so far this year, and only two more scheduled, the United States could have its lowest number of executions since 1991, significantly below the peak of 98 executions in 1999. Only 8 states have carried out executions in the last two years, down from a high of 20, also in 1999. New death sentences, which peaked at 315 in 1996, declined to 73 last year, and that number is expected to drop even further this year. The slowdowns in executions and new death sentences are just two of several indicators that the U.S. is moving away from capital punishment. Reuters reports that these changes come from a combination of factors, including the high cost of death penalty cases, the recent problems surrounding lethal injection, and improved capital representation in high-use states. Texas and Virginia, two of the death penalty states that historically have been the most aggressive in carrying out executions, stand out as examples of the punishment's declining use. Both states have implemented major reforms in indigent defense in recent years, producing dramatic changes in the death penalty landscape. In Texas, which had 48 death sentences in 1999, juries have handed down only three death sentences so far this year. Virginia, which has executed the highest percentage of death row inmates of any state, is on track to have no death sentences for the fourth consecutive year.

STUDIES: Explaining Virginia's Disappearing Death Penalty

A new study by University of Virginia law professor Brandon Garrett (pictured) shows a dramatic decline in the death penalty in Virginia over the last decade. Virginia has carried out the third highest number of executions since the 1970s and historically has executed a higher percentage of its death-row prisoners than any other state. However, Garrett said there are now fewer than two capital sentencing trials per year and Virginia juries have not imposed any new death sentences since 2011. Reviewing Virginia capital proceedings from 2005 to 2014, Garrett found that "[a]lmost all capital cases are now plea bargained," with only 21 proceeding to a capital sentencing hearing. Juries imposed life sentences in more than half of those cases. Garrett found troubling trends in the evidence used in capital cases, which relied frequently on forms of evidence that have been found to be unreliable or susceptible to abuse, such as unrecorded confessions to police, informant testitmony, or eyewitness identifications. He also found significant geographic disparities in death penalty verdicts. “The ‘new’ Virginia death penalty is almost never imposed and when it is, a death sentence is so freakish that it raises the constitutional concerns with arbitrariness under the Eighth Amendment that U.S. Supreme Court justices have long expressed,” Garrett said. “Virginia may be a bellwether for the future of the American death penalty.” The study also compared sentencing proceedings in the past decade with 20 capital trials from 1996 to 2004 to try to explain the drop in death sentences. Garrett concluded that improved representation - both leading to pleas and in performance at trial - was the primary factor in the decline.   

STUDIES: Requiring Jury Unanimity Would Decrease U.S. Death Sentences by 21%

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument on October 13 in Hurst v. Florida, a case challenging provisions in Florida's death penalty statute that do not require jurors to unanimously agree to the facts that could subject a defendant to a death sentence or to reach unanimity before recommending that the judge sentence a defendant to death. Florida is one of just three states that does not require a unanimous jury verdict when sentencing someone to death. A study by the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School found that requiring jury unanimity in Florida, Alabama, and Delaware would have caused a dramatic drop in death sentences over the last 5 years. Overall, the three states would have returned 26 death sentences since 2010, instead of 117 - a 77% drop - and Florida would have imposed 70% fewer death verdicts. The three states that do not require unanimity in death sentencing have produced a disproportionate share of the nation's death sentences, accounting for 28% of all U.S. death sentences since 2010. Had these states followed the sentencing system used by every other death penalty state, the total number of death sentences imposed in the United States  would have decreased by 21%. (Click image for full infographic.)

Looking Back at the Peak of Texas's Death Sentencing

So far in 2015, no one has been sentenced to death in Texas. The death row population has dropped to 257, down from 460 at its peak in 1999. In that year, Texas sentenced 48 people to death, the most in any year since the death penalty was reinstated. Among the reasons for the decline in death sentences has been the adoption of the alternative sentence of life without parole (adopted in 2005), and a change in the political climate that had led politicians to compete in trying to appear "tough on crime." The Austin American-Statesman recently examined the cases of the 48 defendants sentenced to death in 1999. Harris County (Houston) handed down more of the sentences (11) than any other county, even though the number of murders there had been declining. Of those sentenced to death in 1999, half have been executed. One, Michael Toney, was exonerated in 2009. Two died of natural causes. Six had their sentences reduced when the Supreme Court banned the execution of juveniles in 2005 - all six were 17 at the time of their crimes. The rest remain on death row.

Former Prosecutor Says Texas "Can Live Without the Death Penalty"

Former Texas prosecutor, Tim Cole - described by the Dallas Morning News as "a no-holds-barred lawman" in 4 terms as District Attorney for Archer, Clay, and Montague counties - now says that "Texas should join the 19 U.S. states where the death penalty has been abolished." In an op-ed in The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Cole says Texas' dramatic decline in imposing the death penalty, from a record 49 death sentences in 1994 and 48 in 1999 to none in the first 7 months of 2015, is "proving as a state that we can live without the death penalty." A Dallas Morning News editorial based upon Coles' comments described this as "part of a trend of the death penalty falling out of favor not only with juries but also with prosecutors who seek it." Only three death penalty cases have been tried in Texas this year, and all three resulted in life sentences. Cole said, "I believe it is happening because the problems with how the death penalty is assessed have become evident to everyone, including jurors." He particularly emphasized the inaccuracy of the death penalty, saying, "If you can show me a perfect system, I’ll give you the death penalty. But you can’t. You can’t show me a system that’s so perfect that you could show me we’d never execute an innocent person."

Texas Death Row Continues to Shrink As No Death Sentences Imposed in First Half of 2015

Death row in Texas has shrunk from 460 men and women at its peak in 1999 to 260 today. The main reason for that drop, according to an article in The Texas Tribune, is the dramatic decline in death sentences imposed in the state. In 1999 alone, Texas sentenced 48 people to death. But in the first 6 months of 2015, no death sentences have been imposed in Texas. This development is unprecedented, according to the Texas Defender Service (TDS). “This is the longest we’ve gone in a calendar year in Texas without a new death sentence,” said Kathryn Kase, director of TDS. Kase said that a major factor contributing to the decline in death sentences is Texas' adoption of life without parole in 2005. “Life without parole allows us to go back and reverse our mistakes,” Kase said. “We can be really safe in these cases.” In the decade since life without parole became a sentencing option, Texas has averaged about 10 death sentences per year. In the prior decade, an average of 34 people were sent to death row each year. The Tribune reports that "Between 2007 and 2014, the number of life-without-parole sentences jumped from 37 to 96." Three death penalty cases have been tried in Texas so far this year, and all three resulted in sentences of life without parole. 

Death Sentences Fall Across Texas, Support Drops in County That Leads U.S. in Executions

Harris County (Houston), Texas, has executed more men and women than any other county in the United States, but a recent poll shows that a strong majority of its residents now support alternative sentences. A report by the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University found that only 28% of respondents in Harris County prefer the death penalty to life without parole as punishment for first-degree murder. The poll also found that overall support for the death penalty was at a 20-year low, with 56% saying they were in favor of capital punishment.  As public support for the death penalty has dropped, so have Harris County death sentences. The County handed down a combined 44 death sentences from 1994-1996, but sentenced only 5 people to death from 2012-2014. Death verdicts are also down statewide. According to a Dallas Morning News commentary, Texas imposed 11 death sentences in 2014, down from 39 in 1999.  No death sentences have been imposed in the state so far this year. (Click image to enlarge.)

Representation Improves, Death Sentences Dramatically Drop in Virginia

The number of people sentenced to death in Virginia has plummeted from 40 in the years 1998-2005 to only 6 from 2006 through April 2015. A recent study suggests that improvements in capital representation in the state may have played a significant role in that dramatic change. In 2004, Virginia established four regional capital defender offices, which are completely devoted to handling death penalty cases. The year before the defender offices opened, Virginia juries imposed 6 death sentences, but have not imposed more than 2 in any year since.  This mirrors the experience in other jurisdictions in which defendants have been represented by institutional capital defenders. In addition to better outcomes at trial, "[a] capable and vigorous defense no doubt accounts — at least in part — for the increased willingness of prosecutors to resolve capital cases short of death," University of Virginia law professor John G. Douglass said in his study.