CHICAGO — States and the federal government carried out 11 executions this year, the fewest since 1988, as support for the death penalty has continued to decline.
That’s according to an annual report on the death penalty released in mid-December. Three of the death sentences were carried out in January days before President Donald Trump left office. Annual executions have steadily declined since peaking at 98 in 1999.
Pandemic-related disruptions partly accounted for the low number of executions this year — though 2021 marked the seventh consecutive year when there were fewer than 30 executions and fewer than 50 new death sentences, the report said.
The federal death penalty was put on hold in June by Attorney General Merrick Garland.
The report from the Death Penalty Information Center noted how some death-penalty states scrambled for alternative execution methods after pharmaceutical companies restricted access to drugs once widely used for lethal injections. It highlighted Arizona’s proposal this year to use cyanide hydrogen gas.
Support for the death penalty, meanwhile, has steadily declined from a high of 80% in 1994 to 54% this year, according to a 2021 Gallup poll cited in the report. Since the mid-1990s, opposition has risen from under 20% to around 45%.
States also continue to rescind death-penalty laws. Virginia did so in March, bringing the number of states to have abolished the death penalty to 23. Three, including California, have moratoriums on executions.
Executions have been increasingly concentrated in Southern states. Texas executed three inmates and Oklahoma two in 2021. Alabama, Mississippi and Missouri each executed one. The Trump administration executed three. The last, Dustin Higgs, was executed five days before Joe Biden’s inauguration. The federal executions brought the year’s total to 11.
Trump’s Justice Department executed 10 federal prisoners in 2020, ending a 17-year hiatus. States suspended their death penalty programs during the height of the pandemic.
Among other report highlights:
— Seven states imposed 18 new death sentences in 2021 — tying a record low. Alabama and Oklahoma imposed four each. California and Texas both imposed three. Florida imposed two and Nebraska and Tennessee one each.
— Six of the 11 inmates executed in 2021 were black. Black and Hispanic defendants made up more than 60% of the death sentences imposed this year.
— Some 2,500 prisoners remain on state death rows. Some 50 are left on federal death row at a Terre Haute, Indiana, prison after the Trump executions reduced their numbers by nearly a quarter.
The Justice Department’s June order halted federal executions while it reviewed Trump-era practices. The Biden administration also withdrew notices of intent to seek the death penalty in several cases. But the administration did still keep pressing for death sentences for white supremacist Dylann Roof, convicted in the 2015 slayings of nine members of a black congregation in South Carolina, and for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
Despite a campaign pledge to decisively end executions, Biden hasn’t addressed the issue publicly as president. Anti-death-penalty activists fear federal executions could restart if Trump were to run again for president and win a second term or if another capital punishment advocate becomes president.