Death Penalty Used Sparingly by States in 2020 Amid Pandemic

This undated file photo provided on July 11, 2019, by the South Carolina Department of Corrections shows the new death row at Broad River Correctional Institution in Columbia, S.C.

This undated file photo provided on July 11, 2019, by the South Carolina Department of Corrections shows the new death row at Broad River Correctional Institution in Columbia, S.C. South Carolina Department of Corrections via AP


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States suspended executions due to the coronavirus outbreak and put just 7 people to death this year. Meanwhile, federal executions resumed for the first time in 17 years.

Use of capital punishment declined dramatically at the state level this year, due partly to the suspension of state executions during the coronavirus pandemic, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Seventeen people were put to death this year compared to 22 people last year, with states responsible for just seven executions, according to the center’s year-end report, which was released Wednesday.

Capital punishment has been on the decline for years and would have decreased further this year had the Trump administration not resumed federal executions in July after a 17-year hiatus. The federal government was responsible for carrying out 10 executions in 2020.

Even as the federal government resumed executions, states continue to abandon capital punishment as a sentence for murder. 

“At the state level, we saw the 22nd state abolish the death penalty and we saw two more states go a decade without executions,” said Robert Dunham, the executive director of the DPIC.

Colorado repealed the death penalty this year, with Gov. Jared Polis simultaneously commuting the sentences of three men on death row.

And 2020 marks 10 years since either Louisiana or Utah carried out a death sentence—meaning 34 states now either have abolished capital punishment or have not carried out an execution in at least a decade.

Covid-19 has spread rapidly inside the country’s jails and prisons, and no states have gone forth with any executions since July amid concern over added exposures. Prison staff and attorneys working on federal death penalty cases have been infected during the course of their work.

Five states put people to death this year, including Texas, which executed three people; and Alabama, Georgia, Missouri and Tennessee, which each executed one person. 

Defendants this year were sentenced to death in seven states–Arizona, California, Florida, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Texas.

Decisions made at the county level drive the number of death penalties imposed, and numerous signs point to the continued decline in executions in future years, Dunham said.

Within the states that use the death penalty, death sentences are becoming increasingly isolated to individual counties, Dunham said. Meanwhile, district attorneys who pledged they would not seek death penalty sentences won elections this year in jurisdictions that have accounted for death sentences in the past, he said.

Newly elected Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón announced this month that he will not pursue capital punishment cases and will seek to resentence inmates on death row to life in prison.

“That suggests the reformer prosecutors’ movement may have a significant ongoing, impact on use of the death penalty,” Dunham said.

While capital punishment continues to trend downward, data from 2020 and 2021 will likely be outliers of the normal trends, Dunham said. Once states resume executions, those that should have gone forward this year could inflate next year’s numbers. With court cases delayed as a result of coronavirus-related closures, there could also be an uptick in the number of death sentences handed down in the coming year, he said.

Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent with Route Fifty.

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