As Public Support for Death Penalty Drops, New Death Sentences Remained Low in 2017


Fourteen states and the federal government imposed 39 new death sentences in 2017, the second lowest annual total since the Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional in 1972.

Alabama imposed only two new death sentences in 2017 — the lowest number of new death sentences in a single year in four decades.

In 2017, Alabama became the last state to abolish judicial override. In March, Florida passed a new law requiring that all 12 jurors must vote for death in order to impose a death sentence, leaving Alabama as the only state in the country that still permits a trial judge to impose the death penalty based on a non-unanimous jury verdict. Both of the new death sentences in Alabama in 2017 were imposed by a judge even though the jury did not unanimously find that death was the appropriate sentence.

In its year-end report on the death penalty in America, the Death Penalty Information Center reports that executions in 2017 also remained near historic lows. Eight states carried out 23 executions, half the number of seven years ago, and the second lowest total since 1991.

Public support for the death penalty fell to its lowest level in 45 years. Gallup’s 2017 poll measured support for capital punishment at its lowest point (55 percent) since 1972 — down from 60 percent last year.

DPIC reports that the risk of executing the innocent is cited as one of the leading factors behind the decrease in public support for the death penalty.

Four people were exonerated this year after being sentenced to death in Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, and Louisiana, bringing to 160 the total number of people exonerated after being condemned to death since 1973. Systemic problems with racial discrimination, flawed or fraudulent forensic testimony, poor legal representation, and prosecutorial misconduct contributed to the wrongful convictions of the people exonerated this year.

The number of people with death sentences in America declined for the 17th consecutive year, DPIC reports, as more people were released from death row by exoneration, commutation, or resentencing or died on death row than were newly sentenced to death. The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund reported 2817 people facing active death sentences or potential death-penalty resentencing proceedings as of July 1, 2017, down from 2905 at the same time in 2016.