The year-end report for 2017, recently released by the Death Penalty Information Center, shows that the 23 executions carried out in 2017 remain near a record-low level.
During the last 25 years, only the 20 executions carried out in 2016 was lower. Similarly, the figure of 39 death-penalty sentences expected to be handed down by the end of the year in 2017 was the second-lowest recorded in the past 45 years, trailing only the 31 handed down in 2016.
The report also notes what it calls the “geographic isolation” of the modern death penalty. Of the 39 death sentences handed down in 2017, 12 of them came from just three western-state counties: Riverside County, California, with five; Clark County, Nevada, with four; and Maricopa County, Arizona, with three. The nation’s other 3,140 counties and parishes accounted for the remaining 27 death sentences in 2017, with no county producing more than a single instance.
On the other hand, Harris County, Texas – the county which has carried out more executions than any other since 1974 – in 2017, for the first time, neither executed any prisoner nor handed down a single death penalty. The states which performed the most executions in 2017 were Texas (seven), Arkansas (four), and Florida and Alabama (three apiece).
But while just 23 executions were carried out in 2017, 81 had been scheduled. The 58 executions that were scheduled but not carried out were due to additional legal appeals, reprieves or commutations, logistical problems (many states have difficulty procuring chemicals used for lethal injections), or for other reasons (for example, Ohio had to move to 2019 an execution it tried to carry out this November, when an elderly, infirm inmate was brought into the execution chamber, but corrections staff were unable to find a viable vein for the lethal injection).
Even states most likely to resort to the death penalty are finding new curbs on its use. In Texas, courts stayed seven scheduled corrections after the state revamped its laws on appeals to allow further judicial review of evidence used to convict that could be challenged as false and misleading. Due to court decisions, Florida judges can no longer issue death sentences unless the jury recommends so unanimously, and Alabama judges lost the ability to override a jury’s recommendation of a life sentence in capital cases.
In 2017, four death-row inmates were exonerated (in cases from Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, and Louisiana), raising the number of death-row inmate exonerations since 1973 to 160. Prosecutorial misconduct figured in several of the cases. For instance, in the Louisiana case, the African-American defendant won a retrial after being convicted of murdering his one-year-old son because an appeals court ruled the prosecutor wrongly blocked blacks from serving on the jury. On retrial, additional forensic evidence reinforced an autopsy conclusion that the child had died of natural causes. A prosecutor in the Arkansas case withheld evidence, and the Delaware prosecutor was later suspended for misbehavior during the later-exonerated inmate’s trial.
According to the Gallup Poll, public support for the death penalty also continues to drop. It fell to 55 percent this October, a 5 percent decline in a year, and the lowest level since 1972. Support fell by 10 percent among those polled who identified themselves as Republicans.
Christopher Zoukis is an outspoken prisoner rights and correctional education advocate who is incarcerated at FCI Petersburg Medium in Virginia. He is an award-winning writer whose work has been published widely in major publications such as The Huffington Post, Prison Legal News, New York Daily News and various other print and online publications. Learn more about Christopher Zoukis at christopherzoukis.com and prisoneducation.com.