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Executions Rise in 2023, Number on Death Row Falls

The number of American prisoners awaiting execution continued a decrease that began at the turn of the century, dropping to 2,331 in 2023, a 4.3% decline from 2022. Yet even though just five states executed prisoners during the year— Texas, Florida, Missouri, Oklahoma and Alabama—the total number of killings jumped by one-third by the end of 2023.

On a brighter note, the number of new death sentences was lower than the number of executions for the first time in 2023, with only seven states adding to their death rows: Alabama, Arizona, California, Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina and Texas. The federal Bureau of Prisons also picked up its first new condemned prisoner since the 2021 inauguration of Pres. Joseph R. Biden, Jr. (D): On August 2, 2023, a federal judge sentenced Robert Bowers, 50, to die for fatally shooting 11 people and wounding seven more at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue in 2018, the deadliest assault on Jews in American history.

More Americans than not still support the death penalty, 53% to 44%. But in 2023, a Gallup poll for the first time found more people believe it is unfairly administered, by a margin of 50% to 47%. That may reflect the growing number of condemned prisoners who have been exonerated—and 2023 added three more, bringing the total to 195 since the Supreme Court of the U.S. (SCOTUS) greenlighted resumption of executions in 1976.

SCOTUS itself didn’t provide death-row prisoners any relief, though, rejecting 33 of 34 requests to stay an execution since October 1, 2022. Over the past decade, the high court has also granted 18 of 21 requests made by states to lift execution stays. Last year, as PLN reported, the Court’s conservative super-majority threw prisoners under the bus in Shinn v. Ramirez, ruling that no claim of ineffective assistance counsel may be raised on appeal that wasn’t raised at trial—even though that would have to be done by the ineffective counsel himself. [See: PLN, Oct. 2022, p.44.]

2023 marked the ninth consecutive year that the total number of U.S. executions remained below 30. Most states have abolished capital punishment, 29 vs. 21. The 24 prisoners killed during the year were also older and had been held longer than in most previous years. See: The Death Penalty in 2023: Year End Report, Death Penalty Information Center (2023).

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