The gurney in the execution chamber at Rockview State Prison in Centre County, (Pa. Dept. of Corrections photo)
Two more death row prisoners were exonerated in 2022, even as society’s ultimate sanction became more geographically isolated, with only a handful of states carrying out executions in the last year, according to a new report.
The number of botched executions also reached an “astonishing” level, according to the research by the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington D.C-based clearinghouse that tracks developments in capital law and executions nationwide.
Seven of the year’s 20 execution attempts, or 35 percent, were “visibly problematic,” according to the report, either as a result of executioner incompetence, a failure to follow execution protocols, or defects in the protocols themselves.
“After 40 years, the states have proven themselves unable to carry out lethal injections without the risk that it will be botched,” the center’s executive director, Robert Dunham, said in an email. “The families of victims and prisoners, other execution witnesses, and corrections personnel should not be subjected to the trauma of an execution gone bad.”
The report shows a drop in executions nationwide, with the 18 actually carried out this year being the fewest of any pre-pandemic year since 1991.
On Dec. 13, outgoing Oregon Gov. Kate Brown commuted the capital sentences of all 17 of the state’s death row prisoners, and instructed the department of corrections to begin dismantling the state’s execution chamber, the Oregon Capital Chronicle, a sibling site of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, reported.
Two sentencing decisions also are scheduled to be announced in San Bernardino County, Calif. on Friday. If death sentences were imposed in those two cases, 22 new death sentences will have been imposed in the U.S. in 2022, according to the report.
And with the exception of the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021, that total (four more than last year’s record low of 18) will be the fewest imposed in the United States in any year in the past half-century, according to the report.
The death penalty continued to be geographically isolated with only six states – Alabama, Arizona, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Missouri, and Texas – carrying out executions, according to the report.
Pennsylvania has not carried out an execution since 1999. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who leaves office in January, imposed a moratorium on executions in 2015 that remains in place seven years later. Wolf’s successor, Democratic Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro, the state’s current elected attorney general, opposes capital punishment, and has called for its abolition.
Legislation abolishing the death penalty has come before Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled General Assembly, but has never made it over the finish line.
Among the report’s other key findings:
- “Two more former death-row prisoners were exonerated in 2022, including the third woman wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death in the U.S. With DPIC’s ongoing research discovering two additional unrecorded exonerations, the number of U.S. death-row exonerations since 1972 rose to 190.
- “The vast majority of those executed in 2022 were individuals with significant vulnerabilities. At least 13 of the people executed in 2022 had one or more of the following impairments: serious mental illness (8); brain injury, developmental brain damage, or an IQ in the intellectually disabled range (5); chronic serious childhood trauma, neglect, and/or abuse (12). Three prisoners were executed for crimes committed in their teens. At least four of the people executed this year were military veterans.
- “Public opinion polls in 2022 showed support for capital punishment remained near historic lows, even amid rising perceptions of crime. A poll released in February found that Americans’ support for the death penalty was even lower when asked about the classes of defendants who are most frequently subject to the punishment. Democrats, Republicans, and independents by margins of more than 30 percentage points opposed the use of the death penalty against people with severe mental illness, brain damage, or intellectual impairments, and against veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder,” the report’s authors wrote.
The report found ongoing racial and ethnic disparities in executions. Eight of the 18 people put to death were people of color. Five were Black people, one was Asian, one Native American, and one was Latino. And five of the eight were executed for killing white victims.
Officials in Missouri executed condemned inmate Kevin Johnson despite a special prosecutor’s request to vacate his sentence because of racially biased sentencing decisions by the original prosecutor, and the intentional exclusion of Black jurors, according to the report.
And while heated rhetoric over violent crime, and millions of dollars in advertising were deployed by Republicans who wanted voters to reject Democrats they painted as soft on crime, the opposite happened, according to the report.
“Candidates committed to criminal legal reform or who promised to continue a statewide moratoria on executions posted key election wins in the 2022 elections,” the report’s authors wrote. “Governors who promised to continue moratoria on executions in California, Oregon, and Pennsylvania were re-elected and elected. Incumbent district attorneys, including in Dallas, San Antonio, and Indianapolis, were reelected, despite opponents’ concerted efforts to attack their reform initiatives.”
In Pennsylvania, Republicans in the state House and Senate are pursuing the impeachment of Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, a Democrat who was overwhelmingly re-elected by city voters in 2021, charging that his policies led to the surge in violent crime in the state’s largest city. A trial in the GOP-controlled state Senate is scheduled for mid-January.
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