The number of people executed continues to be lower than in previous decades despite an increase this year, driven mostly by the restarting of executions in Florida after a three-year pause. Twenty-four people were put to death this year, compared to 18 in 2022. And the U.S. Supreme Court turned away most petitions from death row prisoners, the nonprofit said.
The report comes on the heels of a Gallup poll last month finding that 50% of Americans think the death penalty is not administered fairly, versus 47% who think it is.
Remarkably, a growing number of conservative state lawmakers and some pro-death penalty elected officials publicly supported prisoners with innocence claims and raised new concerns about the fairness of the death penalty itself and accuracy of evidence, the report says.
One high-profile case involved death row prisoner Richard Glossip in Oklahoma, where the state's attorney general has publicly opposed his death sentence, conceding that his murder conviction was tainted by constitutional errors and possible prosecutorial misconduct. The U.S. Supreme Court stayed Glossip's execution in May.
"The data show that most Americans no longer believe the death penalty can be imposed fairly," Robin M. Maher, the Death Penalty Information Center's executive director, said in a statement. "That important change can also be seen in the unprecedented show of support for death-sentenced prisoners from conservative lawmakers and elected officials this year, some of whom now oppose use of the death penalty in their state."
According to Gallup, a majority of Americans — 53% — support capital punishment, a figure consistent with findings in the past three years, but which continues a downward trend that began in 1994, when support peaked at 80%.
In its year-end report, the Death Penalty Information Center, or DPIC, said Texas and Florida accounted for almost 60% of the total executions this year, with eight and six respectively. Missouri and Oklahoma each executed four people, while Alabama executed two.
Texas continues to be the state with the highest number of executions per year since 1976, when the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty after a four-year hiatus, according to the report.
At the same time, only seven states — Alabama, Arizona, California, Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Texas — sentenced people to death, the lowest number in 20 years. Two of those states, California and Arizona, have execution moratoriums in place, set by their governors.
Five States Executed People in 2023
Twenty-four people were executed in the United States in 2023, but the executions were all concentrated in a few states. Texas (8) carried out the most death sentences, followed by Florida (6) , Missouri (4) , Oklahoma (4) and Alabama (2) .
The number of executions exceeded the number of new death sentences for the first time, DPIC said.
In the report, DPIC said "race continues to matter," finding that prisoners of color were overrepresented among those executed when considering their share in the country's general population. Nine of the 24 people who were put to death were people of color.
And 79% of the crimes for which prisoners were executed involved white victims. Meanwhile, none of the 15 white prisoners executed in 2023 were convicted of killing a person of color, the report says.
"That says something very uncomfortable about how people are valuing white life versus people of color," Maher told Law360 in a phone interview. "Studies over and over again have confirmed that very profound racial inequity."
DPIC said most people executed this year would most likely not have been sentenced to death if tried today because of changes in the law, prosecutorial attitudes and public opinion, in particular regarding capital punishment as applied to vulnerable people.
About 79% of people put to death in 2023 were either severely mentally ill or suffered from brain damage, had an IQ in the intellectually disabled range, or had a serious history of childhood trauma, neglect or abuse. And about one-third of all people executed had all three conditions, the report says.
DPIC, which tracks executions on an ongoing basis, said three death row prisoners were exonerated in 2023, bringing the number of total U.S. death row exonerations since 1972 to 195.
Overall, more states have been shifting away from the death penalty in recent years. The last two states to abolish it were Colorado and Virginia, in 2020 and 2021 respectively, joining 21 other states that had done so before.
Currently, 27 states have capital punishment. Six states with the death penalty have governor-imposed moratoriums, and legislatures in twelve states this year have introduced bills seeking to abolish the death penalty.
"The data show that the death penalty is increasingly disfavored, and the continued, years-long decline in its use has little to do with the Supreme Court," the report says. "It is, instead, the result of society's greater understanding about the fallibility of our legal system."
--Editing by Rich Mills. Graphics by Ben Jay.
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