The Death Penalty Continued Its Downward Trend in 2021

The authorities executed just 11 prisoners in 2021—the U.S.’s lowest total in recent history. This was the seventh consecutive year in which fewer than 30 death row prisoners were executed.

A December report by the Death Penalty Information Center shows that we are also witnessing huge drops in death sentences for capital crime convicted. In 2020, 18 death sentences were issued for the same people as in 2018.

There isn’t much pressure for a halt to the current trend towards fewer executions despite the increase in gun violence and homicides over the last two years. Virginia is the US state with the highest number of executions in American history. In fact, Virginia officially abolished the death penalty. The state had not executed anyone since 2017, even though it was ending this practice. The death penalty has been abolished in 23 states.

One exception was made to the trend towards fewer executions. The U.S. Department of Justice started executions of federal death row prisoners in 2020 under President Donald Trump. Prior to that there had not been any federal executions since 2003. Trump was executed six times in his final term. The last three executions were in January 2021.

While President Joe Biden was campaigning, he pledged to end the federal death penalty. Since his election, there have not been any executions. This moratorium can be reversed if Congress passes legislation ending this practice. Similarly, Gov. Gavin Newsom also has put in place a moratorium for California which houses 699 of the highest death row inmates. California has not executed any inmates since 2006. However, prosecutors are still able to seek capital punishment death sentences.

In October, the Oregon Supreme Court decided that retroactive application of a law that limits capital crime to four types of aggravated crimes (terrorist acts of killing two or more persons, premeditated death of children, murders in prison by people already incarcerated and murders committed by correctional officers) is necessary. The Death Penalty Information Center says that this law could be used to sentence all the 24 Oregon Death Row inmates. Meanwhile, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown maintained the 2011 moratorium.

Ohio and Utah are pushing to eliminate the death penalty. The Death Penalty Information Center noted the bipartisan nature and support for both of these proposals. Four county prosecutors from Utah, two Democrats and two Republicans, support the Republican-led effort. A group letter was sent by the prosecutors stating that Utah’s death penalty today is an impractical sentence and a permanent one. It doesn’t deter crime. It traumatizes victims. It is particularly harmful to minorities. It’s expensive. It makes plea negotiations coercive. It would allow the replacement of the death sentence by a 45-year-to-life sentence.

Two inmates were exonerated of crimes that put them on death row by 2021. After spending 26 years in Mississippi’s death row, Eddie Lee Howard received a pardon for murder. Sherwood Brown in Mississippi was also exonerated for a triple murder. He spent 26 years in prison. Each case involved forensic malpractice that led to the convictions of both men. Both cases were eventually cleared by DNA evidence.

Death Penalty Information Center also calculates the extra costs for taxpayers when those sentenced to die due to police or prosecutor misconduct sue, and receive settlements or damages. They estimated that $78 million was spent on court settlements and awards in the 2021 cases they examined. The majority of the money was paid to Henry McCollum, Leon Brown and their half-brothers Leon Brown. These brothers were coerced to admit to rape or murder using fabricated evidence while they were teenagers and were sentenced to 31 years imprisonment before DNA evidence proved them innocent in 2014. In May, they were awarded damages of $75 million.