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Death Knell? Executions Hit Two-Decade Low

There were 28 inmates put to death in the U.S. in 2015, and new death sentences also declined.

The number of executions and the number of people sentenced to death in the U.S. both fell in 2015 as turmoil continued to surround capital punishment across the country.

In its year-end summary, the Death Penalty Information Center reported Wednesday that there were 28 executions in the last year, the lowest number since 1991. Just six states put inmates to death.

While there are nearly 3,000 state and federal prisoners on death row, new death sentences also slid in 2015, with just 49 expected by Dec. 31. That would be the lowest number since 1973, the center reported.

Opponents of capital punishment hailed the statistics as the beginning of the end of executions, even though 6 in 10 Americans still support the death penalty and a majority of states have it on the books.

"We are seeing the process winding down," said Mike Farrell, an actor and activist who is leading the charge for a ballot initiative to abolish executions in California.

Supporters of the death penalty, not surprisingly, have a different view. They say the low number of executions reflects the difficulty of getting lethal injection drugs, a challenge that some states have started to overcome.

"There is a frustration factor, but as these problems are dealt with, that frustration factor will decline," said Kent Scheidegger of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which successfully pushed California to unveil a new execution protocol this year.

Scheidegger also pointed to this summer's Supreme Court 5-4 ruling that shot down an Oklahoma inmate's challenge to a particular execution drug on the grounds it would not anesthetize him against pain. He called the decision "an out-of-the-park home run."

Death-penalty headlines from across the year detailed victories for both sides of the debate.

  • Nebraska's legislature overrode a veto and repealed the death penalty, but supporters gathered enough signatures for a voter referendum next year.
  • Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf imposed a moratorium on executions until lawmakers submit recommendations on overhauling the process.
  • Ohio put all executions on hold until 2017 because it hasn't been able to obtain the drugs called for under its new protocol, and the FDA blocked the state from importing the chemicals.
  • Texas passed legislation to keep the identity of its drugs suppliers secret, and North Carolina also expanded its secrecy rules.
  • A federal appeals panel reversed a California judge's ruling that the death penalty in the state is unconstitutional because legal delays have rendered it arbitrary.

Farrell said the drop in the number of new death sentences shows juries are becoming more reluctant to impose capital punishment because of high-profile exonerations and botched executions.

"I think the ugliness of the process is beginning to take its toll," he said.

Scheidegger said a drop in the number of murders over the last two decades was likely a bigger factor.

"Prosecutors are being more selective in the cases they seek the death penalty for," he said.

"I think there is a shift in attitude in the direction that we need the death penalty for the worst cases and not for the typical cases," he added. "There were some jurisdictions in the habit of asking for the death penalty wherever legally allowed and that was a dumb policy. No one does that anymore."