In The U.S., Executions Continue Their Long Downward Trend

Missouri State Penitentiary gas chamber.Credit: Erica Woodson

About 55% of Americans support the use of capital punishment, down from about 80% in 1994.

Every aspect of capital punishment seems to be on the decline in the United States, from the number of Americans executed to the number death sentences doled out to the number of Americans who support it.

Twenty-three people were executed in the United States in 2017, the second-lowest number in more than a quarter-century, according to a new report from the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington-based nonprofit.
The projected total of people who will have been sentenced to death this year is 39, one of the lowest annual totals since 1972 and second only to last year, in which a record low of 31 death sentences were handed down.
Gallup polls show that about 55 percent of Americans approve of the use of capital punishment. That number has generally been shrinking since 1994, when it was 80 percent.

Robert Dunham of the Death Penalty Information Center, said the first two statistics above are driven in part by the third, with people feeling more that issuance of the death penalty is more about the personalities of local prosecutors than the pursuit of justice.

Mr. Dunham said many people seemed to be “offended” by episodes like the one in Arkansas this year, when the state tried to execute eight men in 10 days because of an expiration date on a drug used in the lethal injection (it ended up executing four); or by botched executions, such as the one in Ohio last month when a medical team could not find a vein to administer the lethal injection.

He said that people’s faith in the reliability of the justice system was also undermined by exonerations for death row inmates.