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.   

Amid Unavailability of Lethal Injection Drugs, States Push Legal Limits to Carry Out Executions

"Over time lethal injection has become only more problematic and chaotic,” Deborah W. Denno, a professor at Fordham Law School, told the New York Times, summarizing the ongoing battles that have led states to adopt new drug sources or alternative methods of execution. Several states have obtained or sought drugs using sources that may violate pharmaceutical regulations. For the execution of Alfredo Prieto, Virginia obtained pentobarbital from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which purchased it from a compounding pharmacy whose identity is shielded by the state's secrecy law. "Even if the transactions between states do not comply with law, there is no recourse for death-sentenced prisoners," said Megan McCracken, an expert in lethal injection at the Death Penalty Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law. Both Nebraska and Ohio received warnings from the Food and Drug Administration that their attempts to purchase sodium thiopental from overseas suppliers violated federal law regarding the importation of drugs. Oklahoma executed Charles Warner in violation of its own execution protocol, substituting an unauthorized chemical, potassium acetate, for the potassium chloride its regulations require. Other states have turned to alternative execution methods: Tennessee reauthorized use of the electric chair, while Oklahoma passed a bill to make nitrogen gas asphyxiation its backup method. Louisiana prison officials also recommended using nitrogen gas, but the state has not taken action on that recommendation. The scramble for lethal injection drugs has delayed executions across the country. A challenge to Mississippi's protocol has halted executions until at least next year. A Montana judge put executions on hold because the state's proposed drug cocktail violated state law, and either the drugs that comply with state law are not produced in the U.S. and may not be imported or the manufacturer refuses to sell the drug for executions. In Oklahoma, the Attorney General requested an indefinite hold in order to review lethal injection procedures after the state obtained the wrong drug for the execution of Richard Glossip.

Virginia Executes Inmate with Appeal Still Pending Before Supreme Court

On October 1, Virginia executed Alfredo Prieto (pictured) before the U.S. Supreme Court had decided whether to grant a stay on his challenge to Virginia's use of an execution drug obtained from Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Robert Lee, Prieto's attorney, said, "The Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States were considering Mr. Prieto’s request for a stay of execution but the Virginia Department of Corrections went ahead with the execution without waiting for a decision from the Justices." Earlier in the day, U.S. District Court Judge Henry Hudson held a hearing on a challenge to Virginia's lethal injection procedure. Virginia used compounded pentobarbital obtained from Texas, without any inquiry into the manufacture, purity, or storage of the drug. Prieto's lawyers raised questions about the safety and efficacy of the drug. Hudson denied the appeal and lifted a preliminary injunction that had put the execution on hold. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit denied Prieto's appeal of this issue. Prieto's lawyers then filed a petition for review with the U.S. Supreme Court, but Virginia carried out the execution before the Court could issue a decision. The last time a state executed an inmate with appeals still pending was January 29, 2014, when Missouri executed Herbert Smulls.

Spate of Scheduled Executions Highlight Broad Issues in Capital Punishment

An unusually high number of executions are scheduled for late September and early October - five states intend to carry out six executions in nine days. Pieces in the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post describe the larger issues raised by the cases in this "burst of lethal activity." In the Los Angeles Times, Scott Martelle examined the three executions scheduled for consecutive days in Georgia, Oklahoma, and Virginia, concluding, "So here we have three pending executions: One of a woman who received a harsher penalty than the co-conspirator who committed the murder; one of a man who very possibly is innocent; and one of a man whose intellectual disability should make him ineligible for the death penalty." Mark Berman, of the Washington Post, noted the overall rarity of executions and the small number of states that carry them out. He says "most states have ... not been active participants in the country's capital punishment system" and "executions remain clustered in a small number of states, a dwindling number of locations accounting for an overwhelming majority of lethal injections." Berman notes that the number of executions, the states executing inmates and the number of death sentences have all fallen significantly since the 1990s and the upcoming executions share one common characteristic: "The states planning the executions this week and next — Georgia, Oklahoma, Virginia, Texas and Missouri — are among the country’s most active death-penalty states since the death penalty was reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976." 

Virginia Governor Denies Reprieve for Inmate Who May Have Intellectual Disability

Virginia may execute Alfredo Prieto on October 1 despite concerns by disability advocates that he may be intellectually disabled. Governor Terry McAuliffe (pictured) announced on September 28 that he would not grant Prieto a reprieve. Gov. McAuliffe issued a statement saying "It is the Governor’s responsibility to ensure that the laws of the Commonwealth are properly carried out unless circumstances merit a stay or commutation of the sentence. After extensive review and deliberation, I have found no such circumstances, and have thus decided that this execution will move forward." Prieto's attorneys say he is intellectually disabled and therefore ineligible for execution and that an adverse Virginia state court determination of that issue employed a scientifically invalid strict IQ cutoff score. Later, in 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the use of strict IQ cutoff for ruling out intellectual disability without considering other factors violated the Eighth Amendment. The Arc of Virginia, an advocacy group for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said, "We believe that allowing Mr. Prieto’s execution to go forward on the evidence as it stands is unjustified scientifically and would endorse a misunderstanding of intellectual disabilities that was refuted long ago." 

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.

NEW VOICES: Effects of the Death Penalty on Those Who Carry It Out

Four retired death-row prison officials - two wardens, a chaplain, and an execution supervisor - recently described the effect that carrying out executions has had on them. Frank Thompson (pictured), who served as a warden in Oregon and Arkansas, said he believed in capital punishment until he thought "about those flaws in the back of my mind that I knew existed with capital punishment. It’s being administered against the poor; it lacks proof that it deters anything." He trained his staff to carry out executions, but, "I realized that I was training decent men and women how to take the life of a human being. In the name of a public policy that after all these years couldn’t be shown to increase the net of public safety." Terry Collins spent over 32 years working in corrections, including time as the director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. He said seeing exonerations gave him concerns about the death penalty: "[T]the system does make mistakes. I don’t think you can make a mistake when you’re talking about somebody’s life." Jerry Givens, who oversaw 62 executions in Virginia, raised similar concerns, "I knew the system was corrupted when we exonerated Earl Washington Jr. from death row...You have two types of people on death row. The guilty and the innocent. And when when you have the guilty and the innocent, you shouldn’t have death row." Rev. Carroll Pickett was a chaplain on Texas's death row for 15 years and during 95 executions. He commented, "Standing by the gurney almost 100 times, and watching innocent men killed, watching repentant men killed, and seeing the pain among families and men and my employee friends, cannot leave my memories."