Death Penalty Decline Continued in 2019


Executions, new death sentences, and public support for the death penalty remained near historic lows in 2019, according to the Death Penalty Information Center’s Year End Report. With New Hampshire becoming the 21st state to abolish the death penalty and California imposing a moratorium on executions, 32 states have now either abolished the death penalty or not executed anyone in more than a decade.

With 22 executions and 33 new death sentences, 2019 was the fifth straight year with fewer than 30 executions and fewer than 50 new death sentences. (DPIC projects 35-37 new death sentences by the end of the year—the second fewest in the modern history of the death penalty in the U.S.) Both the number of executions and new death sentences are down from 2018, DPIC reports. Death sentences have declined by more than 85% and executions by more than 75% from their peaks in the 1990s.

Alabama executed three people and imposed three new death sentences in 2019, which is consistent with the downward trend in death sentences since its peak of 25 new death sentences in 1998. But Alabama maintained its outlier status this year—with a population of fewer than 5 million, it had the same number of new death sentences as California, with nearly 40 million people. Mobile County has the sixth most death sentences in the last five years out of more than 3,000 counties nationwide. And Alabama was one of only four states (all in the South) that both carried out executions and imposed new death sentences this year; most states did neither.

This year, EJI won a major ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court in Madison v. Alabama that extends Eighth Amendment protections to people with dementia.

The death penalty continued to become more geographically isolated in 2019. Only 28 of the nation’s more than 3,000 counties (fewer than 1%) imposed a death sentence this year—one of the lowest figures in decades. And only seven states carried out executions, more than 90% of which were in the South:  Texas (9 or 41% of all executions); Tennessee (3); Alabama (3); Georgia (3); Florida (2); South Dakota (1); and Missouri (1).

Of the 65 scheduled execution dates set in 2019, nearly two-thirds (66%) did not go forward, including at least two that were halted by courts after evidence of innocence was submitted. But two people were executed this year despite substantial doubts about their guilt, DPIC reports, and four innocent men were released after decades in prison.

Clifford Williams Jr. was released 43 years after being wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death in Florida, which leads the country in death-row exonerations. Charles Ray Finch was exonerated in North Carolina after 43 years in prison, becoming the 166th person to be exonerated in the U.S. after being sentenced to death.

Public support for the death penalty continued its decline this year. For the first time, a majority—60%—of respondents chose life sentences over the death penalty, according to a Gallup poll. The poll reported a significant shift toward life over the past five years among every demographic group questioned. Support for capital punishment generally remained near a 47-year low.

As the death penalty declines, a recent report found that racial disparities in its use are increasing.

The federal government announced this year that it would resume executing people this month after 16 years without an execution. A federal court blocked the executions to allow a challenge to the federal execution protocol, and while the Supreme Court did not overrule the lower court, it ordered it to resolve the case “with dispatch.”

And while the Supreme Court created new protections for condemned people who suffer from mental illness resulting from neurological disease or injury, DPIC points out its refusal to intervene in cases that presented significant evidence of racial discrimination and anti-gay bias as well as the Court’s increasing hostility to method-of-execution challenges.