The Death Penalty Information Center released its year-end report a few weeks ago. Some interesting statistics illustrate the decreasing support for the death penalty in the US:
- 49 death sentences were returned by juries nationwide in 2015—the lowest number since 1991. (The highest was 315 death sentences in 1996.)
- There were only 28 executions nationwide in 2015. Four states carried out 93% of them: Florida, Georgia, Missouri and Texas. (There were 98 executions in 1999.)
- The majority of Americans still support the death penalty (56-61%, depending on the poll) but the support is on a steady decline. Most are satisfied with the alternative sentence of life without parole.
- There were 6 exonerations from death rows in 6 states in 2015: Arizona, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Georgia, and Florida. (Since 1973, 156 men and women have been exonerated from death row.)
- 18 states and the District of Columbia have abolished the death penalty. Eight DP states have not executed anyone in 10 years; another 4 DP states have not executed anyone in 9 years. Thus, by law and by practice, 30 states no longer carry out executions.
- 3 states have non-unanimous jury recommendations of death: Florida, Alabama, and Delaware. Almost 25% of the 2015 death sentences were the result of non-unanimous jury recommendations.
- The total number of death row inmates nationwide has fallen below 3,000 (2,984 as of 7/1/15). (In 2000, there were 3,670 death row inmates.)
The US Supreme Court heard argument last October in the case of Hurst v. Florida about the constitutionality of Florida’s death sentencing scheme. As noted above, Florida allows for a non-unanimous jury “recommendation” to the judge. A Florida judge can impose death even if the jury recommends life which seems to contradict the Court’s ruling in a Ring v. Arizona (2002) which said that only a jury can make the factual findings (existence of aggravators) to justify a death sentence. Hurst argues that Florida’s death sentencing scheme violates the Sixth and Eighth Amendments. I will not be surprised if the US Supreme Court finds that the Florida procedure is unconstitutional. That decision is still to come.
Nebraska is an interesting state to watch in 2016 regarding the death penalty. The legislature repealed the death penalty and Nebraska’s governor vetoed the bill. The legislature then overrode the veto and the governor had no choice but to sign the bill repealing the death penalty. But death penalty proponents took up the cause and successfully petitioned to have a referendum on the November 2016 ballot to vote whether to “repeal the repeal.” The status of the current death row inmates is in limbo pending the outcome of the referendum vote.
In Tampa, Florida, the Hillsborough County State Attorney announced just two weeks ago that he is seeking death against two women in two different double murder cases. Nichole Gene Nachtman, 21, a Florida State University student, is charged with murdering her mother and stepfather in August. Marisol Best, 30, is charged with murdering her parents-in-law in November. As many of you know, the vast majority of death row inmates are men. In fact, women account for less than 2% of all death row inmates. It’s certainly unusual that there are two capital cases in the same courthouse against women.
Finally, last October, in a speech at the University of Minnesota Law School, Justice Antonin Scalia said he “wouldn’t be surprised if the U.S. Supreme Court found the death penalty unconstitutional.” At a minimum, abolishing the death penalty once and for all would eliminate costly litigation. The United States could also part company with the four nations who, together with the U.S., were the top five in the world in the number of annual executions in 2014: China, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran.