The Death Penalty in 2019: A Year of Incredible Progress, Marred by Unconscionable Executions

America made big strides in 2019 on its path to dismantle
the racist, unfair, and inhumane death penalty. Today, dramatically fewer
states permit the death penalty than any time in the modern era, and the number
of people on death row is at a 27-year
low
.

Bi-partisan supermajorities in the New
Hampshire
legislature abolished the death penalty in May, making it the 21st
state to formally reject the punishment. Governor Gavin Newsom imposed a
sweeping moratorium on executions in California, closing the death chamber in
the state with the largest death row in the country and prohibiting the
execution of 737 death row prisoners. Four states — California, Oregon, Colorado,
and Pennsylvania — are now under official Governor-imposed moratoria, bringing
the total number of states that wouldn’t carry out an execution to 25. Ten
years ago, just 12 states prohibited executions. In other words, the number of states
prohibiting executions has more than doubled in the last decade — a remarkable
pace of change.

The shift in states rejecting the death penalty is mirrored
by the movement in public opinion away from capital punishment. The Gallup Poll
has tracked public opinion about the death penalty versus life imprisonment
since 1985. This year, for the first time since Gallup began tracking public
opinion on this issue, a
majority
of Americans (60 percent) prefer life imprisonment to the death
penalty. 

Part of this shift is the clear proof that the government does not always get it right — innocent people have been sentenced to death, including the 166 people who have been formally exonerated. This year brought even more proof that the death penalty cannot shake its innocence problem. In 2019, two men, Charles Ray Finch and Clifford Willians Jr., both of whom were convicted and sentenced to death in 1976, were exonerated and released. Additionally, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted an indefinite stay to Rodney Reed after a groundswell of public opposition clamored against his execution in light of powerful new evidence of his innocence. Other names like James Dailey, Richard Glossip, and Larry Swearingen also made headlines for credible innocence claims. For Swearingen, those news stories came too late

While a year of much progress, 2019 was also a year plagued
by shameful state executions and the reckless attempt by the federal government
to rush the
executions
of five men after a nearly two decade de facto moratorium. The
Supreme Court allowed Alabama to execute Dominque Ray, a Black Muslim who was
denied access to the spiritual advice of his Imam — a comfort guaranteed to
Christian prisoners. Just weeks later, the Court stopped the execution of
Patrick Murphy, a white Buddhist man, triggering concerns that race
and religion
played a role in the disparate outcomes. 

Other unconscionable executions from 2019 include: Georgia’s
execution of Ray
Cromartie
without permitting a simple DNA test that could have fully
exonerated him; Missouri’s execution of terminally ill Russell
Bucklew
in the face of evidence that his execution was likely to be torturous;
and Tennessee’s execution of legally blind Lee Hall, Jr. The Supreme Court and
the government of South Dakota alike failed Charles
Rhines
, allowing his execution despite evidence that his jurors sentenced
him to death because of their anti-LGBT
prejudice
.    

This year was mixed in terms of the courts willingness to
grapple with intractable problems of racial discrimination in the death penalty.
The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear cases from Oklahoma
that challenged the systemic racial bias in the imposition of the death penalty,
as well as from California, where the state supreme court had upheld the
outrageous claim that a prosecutor’s decision to exclude jurors who did not
oppose the
OJ Simpson verdict
was unrelated to race.

But the North Carolina Supreme Court granted review in six
cases
where the petitioners were yanked from death row, to life without
parole, and back again — without due process or new trials — after they had
proved racism infected their cases and the state legislature repealed its
anti-discrimination law. And the U.S. Supreme Court issued a powerful decision
in Flowers v. Mississippi
,
reaffirming its commitment to overturning cases in which prosecutors secured
death sentences by systematically excluding qualified Black jurors from jury
service. 

The modern death penalty has churned along for over 40 years
since the Supreme Court permitted its reinstatement in Gregg v. Georgia, after finding it unconstitutionally biased and
arbitrary in 1972. After more than 40 years, none of the major problems with
the death penalty have been addressed. An outgrowth
of lynching and slavery
, the modern death penalty is still racially biased.
Supposed to be reserved for the “worst of the worst” defendants, the death
penalty is handed down more often for those with the worst lawyers — not the
worst crimes. Geography, money, and race are still the best predictors of who
will receive the death penalty. The good news from 2019 is that the country is
accelerating in its efforts to finally break with the inhumane and unjust
punishment.      

Part of an end of year wrap-up series. Read more:

Under Attack by Trump, Immigrant Justice is Advancing in the States

In 2019, We Fought Across the Country to Dismantle Mass Incarceration. We Won on Multiple Fronts.

The Battle for Abortion Access is in the States

The 2020 Election Promises Record Turnout


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