Executions are on the rise in the U.S., even as public support wanes
Phillip Hancock on Thursday became the fourth death row inmate executed in Oklahoma this year. The state's parole board had voted 3-2 to recommend clemency for Hancock, who was convicted for the 2001 murders of two men, but the governor declined to intervene.
Nationally, executions climbed for the second year in a row in 2023, with Texas and Florida accounting for more than half, according to a year-end-report by the Death Penalty Information Center. The increase comes as public opinion continues to turn against the death penalty.
Twenty-four people have been put to death so far in 2023, up from 18 in 2022 and 11 in 2021.
The center found that the increase can be attributed to Florida's return to executions after a three-year pause "as [Gov. Ron DeSantis] launched a presidential campaign." The state carried out six executions — Florida's highest number since 2014 — and it imposed five new death sentences, the highest number of any state this year.
As NPR previously reported, following the Parkland shooter trial, DeSantis made it easier for juries to impose the death penalty after signing a bill undoing a unanimous vote requirement. Now, an 8-to-4 jury vote is sufficient to recommend a death sentence. It is the lowest threshold in the county.
Meanwhile, Texas continued its streak as the nation's busiest capital punishment state, conducting eight executions this year.
The remaining court-ordered deaths were limited to three states: Alabama, which killed two inmates after three botched executionslast year; Missouri carried out four death warrants, including the first known execution of an openly transgender woman, Amber McLaughlin; In Oklahoma, after a brief moratorium and internal investigation into failed execution attempts the previous year, the state carried out four of its 11 scheduled executions.
Americans believe the death penalty is unequally applied
But despite the uptick in state-sanctioned deaths, a majority of the public is turning against executions.
For the first time since it began surveying Americans on the death penalty in 2000, a Gallup poll found that more people believe that the death penalty is administered unfairly (50%) than fairly (47%). Support for the death penalty, at 53%, is the lowest since 1972, the poll showed.
"The data show that most Americans no longer believe the death penalty can be imposed fairly," Robin Maher, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), said in a statement.
The DPIC reports that given those shifting attitudes, as well as changes in the law and prosecutorial decision-making, most of the prisoners who were executed over the last 11 months "would likely not have been sentenced to death if tried today."
Instead, the prisoners would likely receive life sentences because contemporary juries are typically presented with comprehensive biographical and psychological histories of the defendant, the DPIC argues. And it adds that defense attorneys today make more compelling arguments for an alternative sentencing.
The study found that jurors now hear much more evidence of a defendant's mental illness, developmental impairments, and severe trauma during court proceedings, and therefore, are more likely to consider their effects before imposing the ultimate punishment.
According to data analyzed by the DPIC, 79% of the death row inmates executed in 2023 had some disability or impairment, including serious mental illness, brain injury, developmental brain damage, or an IQ in the range considered intellectually disabled; and/or chronic serious childhood trauma, neglect and/or abuse.
The report adds: "One-third or eight of the people executed had all three. At least three prisoners were under the age of 20 at the time of their crimes."
DPIC's Maher said the changing attitudes toward the death penalty also extend to conservative lawmakers and elected officials who, in recent years, have expressed "an unprecedented show of support for death-sentenced prisoners" moving some to "oppose use of the death penalty in their state."
Oklahoma Republicans rally for a new trial for Richard Glossip
That is evident in Oklahoma, where Republican Attorney General Gentner Drummond and a bipartisan group of 62 Oklahoma lawmakers — 45 of whom are also Republicans — are calling for the courts to vacate the conviction Richard Glossip, who they say was unfairly tried.
In 1997, Justin Sneed, a handyman at an Oklahoma City motel killed his boss, Barry Van Treese, with a baseball bat during a robbery attempt. Sneed was soon captured and admitted to the murder. When the case went to trial, Sneed claimed that Glossip promised to pay him $10,000 in a murder-for-hire plot.
Sneed's testimony was the only evidence implicating Glossip and it spared him the death penalty. In the end, Sneed received a life sentence without parole and is now serving time in a medium-security prison, while Glossip, who has maintained his innocence, faces death.
Glossip's first conviction was overturned on appeal due to ineffective counsel. In 2004, a second jury also found him guilty, issuing the death penalty.
But questions about Sneed's testimony and the absence of evidence against Glossip have undermined the legitimacy of the death sentence, leading to four stays and two independent investigations.
One of those revealedthat the district attorney's office at the time had told police to destroy a box of evidence before Glossip's second trial and that crucial surveillance video information had also disappeared. Additionally, in the intervening years, letters written by Sneed, in which he asks his now-deceased attorney about recanting his testimony, have also surfaced, throwing another wrench into the legitimacy of the court proceedings.
All of that has prompted the state attorney general to intercede on Glossip's behalf.
"While the State has previously opposed relief for Glossip, it has changed its position based on a careful review of the new information that has come to light," Drummond wrote to the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals in April.
The evidence has also moved Oklahoma state Rep. Kevin McDugle, a Republican, who told NPR he believes Glossip is innocent and deserves a new trial. McDugle said that after digging into the case and watching a documentary about Glossip, he "saw zero evidence that this guy actually had anything to do with the murder."
He added: "I am good with the death penalty as long as we have a pure process all the way through, and we can say for sure, for certain, that we're executing guilty people. But if we have any ability for someone to get through there and be an innocent person, then I will fight against the death penalty here."
The DPIC's latest report notes that cases like these, combined with instances in which death row inmates are exonerated after decades of maintaining their innocence, raise new concerns about the fairness and accuracy of the death penalty itself.
Another factor moving some lawmakers to enact moratoriums or pauses on executions is the continued difficulties states face in obtaining lethal injection drugs. As of now, 29 states have either abolished the death penalty or paused executions by executive action. Some who wish to forge ahead with scheduled death warrants have explored untested methods of executions.
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