Use of Death Penalty Declined Nationwide in 2015


The Death Penalty Information Center reported this week that by all measures, use of and support for the death penalty in America continued its steady decline in 2015. The imposition of new death sentences fell sharply from already historic lows, executions dropped to their lowest levels in 24 years, and public opinion polls revealed that a majority of Americans prefer life without parole to the death penalty.

DPIC reports that 49 people were sentenced to death this year. That is a 33 percent drop from the 73 death sentences imposed last year, which itself was a 40-year low. The number of new death sentences imposed in 2015 was the lowest since 1973, and fewer death sentences have been imposed in the last decade than in the decade before the United States Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional in 1972.

Sixteen percent of all new death sentences in 2015 came from a single county; Riverside County in California, which imposed eight death sentences, sentenced more people to death this year than any state except Florida, which handed down nine death sentences. In contrast, Texas imposed only two death sentences in 2015.

DPIC reports that more than a quarter of all death sentences imposed this year were handed down without a unanimous jury verdict for death – a practice barred in all states except Alabama, Delaware, and Florida. Of the 16 death sentences imposed by those three states in 2015, in 13 cases the jurors did not agree that death was the appropriate sentence. In Alabama, which imposed six death sentences in 2015, none had a unanimous jury verdict for death.

Twenty-eight people were executed in 2015, the fewest since 1991. Only six states carried out executions, which is the fewest since 1988. Just three states – Texas (13), Missouri (6), and Georgia (5) – accounted for 86 percent of all executions.

Although nearly half of all murder victims in the nation are Black, only six of the 28 people executed this year had killed African Americans, DPIC reported.

Six people were exonerated from death row in 2015, including Anthony Ray Hinton, who was exonerated and released this year after three decades on Alabama’s death row for crimes he did not commit.

The national trend towards abolition continued, with Nebraska’s Legislature abolishing the death penalty, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruling its death penalty unconstitutional, and Pennsylvania joining three other states in imposing gubernatorial moratoria on executions.

Public support for the death penalty has continued to fall, and opposition to capital punishment polled higher than at any time since 1972. The 2015 American Values Survey found that a majority of Americans prefer life without parole to the death penalty as punishment for murder.