US death penalties, executions slow as capital punishment is squeezed

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Breaking Down the Death Penalty Debate

AUSTIN, TEXAS (Reuters) -- Capital punishment in the United States has moved into the slow lane, with the number of executions and new death sentences likely to hit lows not seen for more than 20 years.

The last two executions of the year are set to be carried out next week, with Texas scheduled to put convicted murderer Raphael Holiday to death on Wednesday and Georgia scheduled to execute convicted murderer Marcus Johnson on Thursday.

If those lethal injections proceed, there will have been 27 executions in the United States in 2015. That would be the least since 1991, before "a get tough on crime" movement swept the country and led executions to hit 98 in 1999, the highest since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.

The death penalty, which is the law in 31 states, has been hit by the left and right in 2015. Court battles and a scramble to secure execution drugs after a sales ban a few years ago imposed by makers, mostly in Europe, have left about eight states, most notably Texas, Florida and Missouri, as those that conduct executions. In 1999, 20 states put people to death.

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US death penalties, executions slow as capital punishment is squeezed
Dave Atwood, left, and Sophia Malik, right, both of Houston, hold photos of Napoleon Beazley as they protest his execution Tuesday, May 28, 2002, in Huntsville, Texas. Beazley, 25, was executed by lethal injection for the 1994 carjacking murder of 63-year-old John E. Luttig of Tyler, Texas. It was the 14th execution this year in Texas. (AP Photo/Brett Coomer)
Rena, left, and Ireland Beazley hold a photo of their son Napoleon Beazley at their home in Grapeland, Texas, Friday, May 31, 2002. Napoleon Beazley's death sentence for killing the father of a federal judge during a 1994 carjacking at age 17 stirred national debate over capital punishment for youths. (AP Photo/Donna McWilliam)
Rena Beazley, left, and her husband, Ireland, from Grapeland, Texas, are shown in the audience during a news conference Thursday, May 23, 2002, in Austin, Texas. The two, parents of Texas death row inmate Napoleon Beazley, and clergy pleaded for his sentence to be commuted to life in prison. He is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection Tuesday. (AP Photo/Harry Cabluck)

Mugshot of Cameron Todd Willingham

(Photo credit: Texas Department of Criminal Justice)

Judy Cavnar, of Ardmore, Okla., a cousin of executed Texas prison inmate Cameron Todd Willingham, displays a picture of him during a news conference Tuesday, May 2, 2006, in Austin, Texas. The case of a Willingham, who maintained his innocence until the end but was executed after he was convicted of an arson murder, is going before a new state commission required to look into allegations of forensic misconduct. (AP Photo/Harry Cabluck)
Eugenia Willingham of Ardmore, Okla., right, wipes a tear as she speaks during a news conference Tuesday, May 2, 2006, in Austin, Texas. Willingham and other relatives of Cameron Todd Willingham recounted the final moments of Willingham's life and their unsuccessful attempts to block his execution. The New York-based Innocence Project submitted the case to the Texas Forensic Science Commission on Tuesday and also asked the panel to review arson convictions statewide. In the background, from left are Willingham's cousins, Pat Cox, and Judy Cavnar. Mrs. Willingham is his stepmother. (AP Photo/Harry Cabluck)
Death row inmate Troy Davis appears in this undated file photo provided by the Georgia Department of Corrections. (Georgia Department of Corrections/MCT via Getty Images)
Demonstrators gather in front of the White House in Washington as they hold a vigil before the scheduled execution of death row inmate Troy Davis, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011. Davis is facing lethal injection for killing an off-duty Georgia policeman in Savannah, a crime he and others have insisted for years that he did not commit. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
A man chants during a vigil for Georgia death row inmate Troy Davis In Jackson, Ga., Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011. Davis is scheduled to die Wednesday for the killing off-duty Savannah officer Mark MacPhail. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Anne MacPhail pauses for a moment after learning at 10:55 p.m., on September 21, 2011, that the U.S. Supreme Court had denied a stay of execution for Troy Davis, who was convicted in the 1989 murder of her son Mark MacPhail. Davis was executed shortly after in Jackson, Georgia. (Robin Trimarchi/Columbus Ledger-Enquirer/MCT via Getty Images)

Mugshot of Kelly Renee Gissendaner

(Photo credit: Georgia Department of Corrections)


Last year nationwide, there were 73 new death sentences and that number is set to drop by at least a third this year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Oklahoma, one of the most active death penalty states, has put a halt on executions after mistakes in protocols that led to a flawed execution in 2014 and the delivery of the wrong drug to the death chamber this year.

The high costs of prosecutions and the option of life in prison without the possibility of parole are also cited as major drivers for the decline.

The costs of a death penalty prosecution, with appeals, investigations and other items, can be at least double those of housing an inmate for life and are usually far higher, according to data cited by the Marshall Project, a nonprofit newsgroup that focuses on U.S. criminal justice.


Texas and Virginia have instituted changes in the way death penalty cases are taken through courts that have led to decreased prosecutions. Texas, with 530 executions, has put to death more inmates than any other state since the death penalty was reinstated and Virginia has executed the highest percentage of its death row inmates.

Those states have instituted reforms in recent years to provide more resources for death penalty defenses and increased their access to evidence.

"Both states have changed the way in which indigent capital defense is provided. Counsel makes a huge difference," said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment but whose data is used by both sides in the debate.

So far this year, Texas has had three new death penalty convictions and is on track for its lowest number since the penalty was reinstated. Virginia has had no new death sentences. In 1999, Virginia had seven new sentences and Texas 48.

Due to the costs, many prosecutors have become more selective about taking capital punishment cases to trial.

Death penalty advocate Robert Blecker, a professor at New York Law School, said money should not be a factor.

"The death penalty should not be a utilitarian issue in terms of weighing the costs against the benefits, but rather an issue simply of justice, of who deserves it," he said.

Next year, voters in conservative Nebraska are set to approve or dismiss a move by Republican lawmakers, who this year made it the first Republican-controlled state in more than 40 years to abolish the death penalty.

The lawmakers said the state should get out of the death penalty process due to high costs and the unreliability of the government to carry out the process correctly.

Another Republican-controlled state, Arkansas, tried to resume executions this year after a 10-year hiatus but has been hit with lawsuits that could take years to settle over its protocols and choice of execution drugs.

"The long-term trends both for executions and for new death sentences show the death penalty in decline. There may be from time to time bumps both up and down but the long-term trend is clear," Dunham said.

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