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State Sanctioned Murder: By the Numbers

by Christopher Zoukis

The Death Penalty Information Center has released a report highlighting significant changes in the number of executions in the United States in 2016.

According to the report, there were 20 executions in the U.S. during calendar year 2016 – the lowest number in 25 years. Additionally, juries imposed fewer death sentences than in any year since the U.S. Supreme Court temporarily struck down the death penalty in 1972.

The declining number of death sentences and executions match waning public support for capital punishment. According to polls conducted by the Pew Research Center and Gallup, about 40 percent of Americans oppose the death penalty. The polls vary, with Pew finding the number closer to 50 percent; regardless, support for the death penalty is at its lowest level in decades.

“America is in the midst of a major climate change concerning capital punishment,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

Capital punishment is also finding less favor among judges across the nation. Jordan Steiker, a University of Texas Law School professor and director of the Capital Punishment Center, sees significant legal roadblocks to the death penalty in the future.

“We are on a path toward constitutional abolition,” said Steiker. “The length of that path will be dictated by uncertainties concerning the Supreme Court’s composition and how much the withering of the death penalty continues.”

Meanwhile, the international human rights group Reprieve has found that the world’s most prolific executioner continues to be China, which led the worldwide list with well over 1,000 executions in 2016. Rounding out the top five nations for capital punishment were Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Pakistan.

Maya Foa, director of Reprieve, lamented the state of the international death penalty.

“It is alarming that countries with close links to the UK and EU continued to occupy the ranks of the world’s most prolific executioners in 2016. From Saudi Arabia, Iran and China to Pakistan, Egypt and Bahrain, we have found children on death row, innocent people hanged, drug offences dealt with as capital crimes, and torture used to extract false confessions. Countries that oppose executions must do more in 2017 to ensure that their overseas security assistance does not contribute to other states’ use of the death penalty.”

As of December 1, 2017, eight states in the U.S. had conducted a total of 23 executions this calendar year, including seven in Texas and four in Arkansas. The prisoners who were executed had served between 8 and 34 years on death row. 


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