‘Fewer people were executed in 2020 than in any year for nearly three decades, and fewer people were sentenced to die than at any point since the Supreme Court created the modern legal framework governing the death penalty in 1976. Those are two of the striking findings in the Death Penalty Information Center’s (DPIC) annual report, which was released on December 16.
One significant reason so few people were executed in 2020 is the Covid-19 pandemic — which has slowed court proceedings and turned gathering prison officials and witnesses for an execution into a dangerous event for everyone involved. But even if 2020 is an outlier year due to the pandemic, DPIC’s data shows a sharp and consistent trend away from the death penalty since the number of capital sentences peaked in the 1990s.
…The trend away from new death sentences and executions has continued despite two recent significant pro-death penalty opinions from the Supreme Court.
…Why has the number of death sentences and executions declined so sharply?…’
— Via Vox
3 thoughts on “The decline and fall of the American death penalty”
The reason is very simple. International pressure. The US government doesn’t give a shit what you think but they’re exquisitely sensitive to disgrace in international forums. At the 2020 Universal Periodic Review of the Human Rights Council, more than a dozen council members told the US to stop their human sacrifice rites. The Human Rights Committee always makes their disgust plain (that’s clearer in the proceedings, taped on webtv.un.org, than in the conclusions and recommendations, https://www.ohchr.org/EN/countries/LACRegion/Pages/USIndex.aspx
When the US does enact a reform, the NYT and other propaganda mills take pains to twist it into an inspiring story of homegrown decency. But that’s bullshit. Foreigners shame the US into it.
I think statistics have been skewed by the Covid slowdown in judicial proceedings this year. But I do agree with you that domestic opinion doesn’t have that much of an impact. The low-hanging fruit — states that might be open to humanity — has by and large already been influenced and, for the rest, it is what it is. Given that it is on a state-by-state level, however, I’m not sure that international shaming has much of an impact either, except for the relatively small number of federal capital cases. For the same reason, I wonder about the value of all the talk I hear about activating Biden against execution.
At the last HRC meeting, the US delegation brought along Roy Moore as an example of the cracker fanatics they have to deal with. Federalism, “those darn states,” is the US government’s go-to excuse. Moore was a handy scapegoat. Death-penalty review featured local NGOs feeding Moore lurid state horror stories and rebuttals in real time, on worldwide streaming webtv. The pressure did filter down to rein in lethal injection. The worst abuses were suppressed, in part because poison makers’ lawyers reminded them of Otto Krupp at Nuremberg, and supplies dried up. The psychological torture of solitary confinement got curtailed by the same means, at federal and state levels.
International pressure also got through to stop criminalization of homelessness, which the committee saw as an outrageous example of pointless sadism – persecution of those already subject to derogated economic rights. These were local and even municipal laws. But the message filtered down and abuses were repealed.
Arguably, international pressure is the only effective reformist impetus on the US. As its international standing dribbles away, the US is increasingly desperate to have something to show. The vegetable Biden will doubtless be put through his paces to make some sort of amends.
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