Death Penalty Sentences Reach Historic Lows In 2020 Despite Return Of Federal Executions

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The gurney in the death chamber in Huntsville, Texas. (Pat Sullivan/AP)
The gurney in the death chamber in Huntsville, Texas. (Pat Sullivan/AP)

For 17 years, the federal government had not used the death penalty — until President Trump changed that in 2020.

The Trump administration has executed 10 federal inmates this year, and three more are scheduled before the end of his presidency next month.

For the first time this year, federal executions occurred more often than executions at the state level, according to the Death Penalty Information Center’s annual report. But overall, executions and death sentences reached historic lows this year, a trend that was on pace even before COVID-19 brought most trials and executions to a halt.

The number of federal executions reached the highest level since Grover Cleveland’s presidency in 1896, while state executions dropped to the lowest level in 37 years, says Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

“We've seen an unparalleled politicization of the Justice Department and the death penalty is part of that,” he says. “After no one had executed anyone in 17 years, this administration has scheduled more executions for a shorter period of time than at any time in either the 20th or 21st centuries.”

Many state executions were paused this year because most states didn’t want to put public health at risk during the pandemic, Dunham says. The high number of executions at the federal level illustrates “how historically out of step the Trump administration has been” when it comes to the death penalty.

“The federal government prioritized executing prisoners now over protecting the public health,” he says. “And as a result of that, when the rest of the country, most of the rest of the country, was trying to save people's lives and protect their health, the federal government plunged forward with a record spree of executions.”

There are currently 2,500 people on death row in states across the country, and 52 people remain on federal death row, Dunham says. In January, the first woman will be executed by the federal government in nearly 70 years.

The death penalty is disproportionately applied to people of color, particularly those who identify as Black and Latino, Dunham says. Capital punishment is also more likely to be leveled against a defendant in murder cases where the victim was white.

Not only is the Trump administration out of touch with past administrations and state governments, but it is also far removed from American public opinion on the death penalty. A recent Gallup poll found 54% of Americans say capital punishment is morally acceptable, which is down from 80% in the 1990s, Dunham says.

“The level of opposition to capital punishment was at the highest level since 1966,” he says. “And we have to read that in conjunction with other recent polls where Gallup found that 60% of Americans, when asked which was a preferable punishment — life without parole or the death penalty — chose life.”

While 55% still represents a majority of Americans who support the death penalty, American public opinion has trended away from capital punishment for some time, Dunham says.

“The American public view of capital punishment is nuanced,” he says. “I think that while people don't like the death penalty, a majority still want it there as an option in some extreme cases.”

Alex Ashlock produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Chris Bentley and Bruce Gellerman. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on December 16, 2020.


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Lisa Mullins Host, All Things Considered
Lisa Mullins is the voice of WBUR’s All Things Considered. She anchors the program, conducts interviews and reports from the field.


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Samantha Raphelson Associate Producer, Here & Now
Samantha Raphelson is an associate producer for Here & Now, based at NPR in Washington, D.C.



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