As executions slowed during pandemic, death penalty opposition continued to grow | Wednesday Morning Coffee

December 16, 2020 7:22 am

Good Wednesday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

Despite the Trump administration’s frenetic restart of federal executions, state-level executions and death sentences fell to historic lows in 2020, according to a new year-end report by the Death Penalty Information Centera Washington D.C-based nonprofit that tracks executions and capital punishment issues nationwide.

“The deep decline in death sentences and state executions was unquestionably a by-product of the pandemic, but even before the pandemic struck, the nation was on pace for the sixth straight year of near-record low sentences and executions,” the organization said in a statement.

Colorado, for instance, became the 22nd state to abolish executions, and two states, Louisiana and Utah, each marked a decade without an execution. Pennsylvania has not carried out an execution since 1999. And in 2015, Gov. Tom Wolf imposed a moratorium on executions in the Keystone State. New, reform-minded prosecutors, such as Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascon, were elected after running on promises not to seek the death penalty.

In all, 17 people were executed in 2020, down from 22 in 2019, the report found. And just five states – Alabama, Georgia, Missouri, Tennessee and Texas – performed executions this year. And only one, Texas, conducted more than one. The total number of executions was the lowest since 1991 and the lowest number of executions performed at the state level since 1983, the report found.

“At the end of the year, more states and counties had moved to end or reduce death-penalty usage, fewer new death sentences were imposed than in any prior year since capital punishment resumed in the U.S. in 1970s, and states carried out fewer executions than at any time in the past 37 years,” DPIC Executive Director Robert Dunham, the report’s lead author said in a statement. “What was happening in the rest of the country showed that the administration’s policies were not just out of step with the historical practices of previous presidents, they were also completely out of step with today’s state practices.”

(The gurney in the execution chamber at Rockview State Prison in Centre County, Pa. Dept. of Corrections photo)

The slowed pace in executions was accompanied by a drop in the number of death sentences sought by prosecutors, according to the report, with DPIC projecting a “record low” of 18 new death sentences in 2020, a 45 percent decline from the previous record low in 2016. Though the report was quick to caution that,  because of the pandemic, the numbers “are not meaningful in assessing long-term trends.

“However, most of the sentences were imposed in the first three months of 2020, before courts across the country delayed trials due to the pandemic, and it was already apparent at that time that 2020 was on pace to be the sixth consecutive year with fewer than 50 new death sentences,” the report found.

Even so, the imposition of death sentences and executions remained consistent with decades-long trends, with almost half the defendants executed being people of color, and 76 percent of the executions were for the deaths of white victims.

“Racism has always infected the use of the death penalty and this year is no exception. The death penalty — as the most severe punishment — must be part of the efforts to address racism in the criminal legal system as a whole,” Ngozi NdulueDPIC’s Senior Director of Research and Special Projects, said in a statement.

(Holding cells at Rockview State Prison, Pa. Dept of Corrections)

Some of the report’s other key findings:

  • “Every prisoner executed this year was age 21 or younger at the offense or had at least one of the following impairments: significant evidence of mental illness (8); evidence of brain injury, developmental brain damage, or an IQ in the intellectually disabled range (6); chronic serious childhood trauma, neglect, and/or abuse (14).
  • “Five people were exonerated from death row in 2020, bringing the number of people exonerated from death row to 172 since 1973. In each of the five cases, prosecutorial misconduct contributed to the wrongful conviction.
  • “With Colorado abolishing capital punishment this year, more than two-thirds of states (34) have either repealed the death penalty or not carried out an execution in 10 years. According to Gallup, the 43 percent of people who opposed the death penalty in 2020 is the highest level of opposition since 1966.
  • “Candidates pledging systemic reforms, including reduced use or abandonment of the death penalty, won prosecutor races in several jurisdictions that have historically produced a large number of death sentences: Los Angeles County (CA), Travis County (Austin, TX), Orange-Osceola counties (Orlando, FL), and Franklin County (Columbus, OH). Across the county, reform prosecutors took the helm in counties comprising more than 12 percent of the nation’s death-row population.
  • “Problematic federal executions included the first ever federal execution of a Native American for a crime on tribal land, in violation of Native sovereignty; the first federal executions of teenage offenders in 78 years; executions of individuals with intellectual disability or serious mental illness; and the first federal execution in 57 years for a crime committed in a state that had abolished the death penalty,” the report concluded.
Pennsylvania State Capitol Building. (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller.)

Our Stuff.
Cassie Miller 
leads our coverage this morning with a detailed breakdown of who’s going to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in Pennsylvania during the first phase of the rollout, and when they can expect to receive it.

With Pa.’s first major winter storm on the horizon, state officials say vaccine distribution will continueMiller also reports.

With the deadline for COVID-19 stimulus deal closing in, Pa. residents ‘need help yesterday,’ one expert warned Tuesday during a conference call organized by U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa.’s, office.

In today’s edition of Helping the Helpers, our partners at the Uniontown Herald-Standard highlight the work of SWPA’s St. Vincent DePaul Society.

Pittsburgh City Council voted Tuesday to shift more than $9 million away from the city police department and the Mon-Oakland Connector in the city’s proposed budget for 2021, our partners at Pittsburgh City Paper report.

On our Commentary Page this morning, opinion regular Bruce Ledewitz ruminates on the future of the U.S. Supreme Court in the post-Trump era. And if we learned nothing in 2020, it’s that access to the vote has to be expanded and protectedShira Goodman, of the ADL in Philly, writes.

House Homeland Security Oversight and Management Efficiency Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Scott Perry makes opening remarks during a hearing on “critical canine contributions to the DHS mission’” in Washington, D.C., May 18, 2017. U.S. Customs and Border Protection Photo by Glenn Fawcett

The Pennsylvania Republican members of Congress who wanted to invalidate their own state’s votes still aren’t recognizing President-elect Joe Biden, the Inquirer reports.
The Post-Gazette profiles Pittsburgh-area restaurants that are continuing to offer indoor dining despite the Wolf administration ban.
Central Pennsylvania could get hit with 10 to 20 inches of snow as the region braces for the first heavy storm of the season today, PennLive reports.
Speaking of which — are we looking at the end of snow days with students already learning from home? The Morning Call takes up the question.
Luzerne County Council has approved a no-tax hike budget for 2021, the Citizens-Voice reports.

Here’s your #Pittsburgh Instagram of the Day:

A West Philadelphia synagogue’s virtual Hanukkah party raised thousands of dollars for a neighboring nonprofit, WHYY-FM reports.
A plan to make $100 million in improvements to Erie’s Bayfront Parkway is the subject of a federal lawsuit focused on environmental concerns, GoErie reports.
Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper will not seek a third termPoliticsPA reports. explains how small banks helped businesses win more PPP loans.
Politico has the latest on the progress of stimulus talks on Capitol Hill.

You Say It’s Your Birthday Dept.
Best wishes go out this morning to Alexandra D’Angola Fetzko, of the Pa. Association for Justice, and longtime Friend O’the BlogTommy Kristich, of Harrisburg power-pop stalwarts, The Jellybricks, both of whom celebrate today. Congratulations, and enjoy the day, friends.

Heavy Rotation.
Making us feel very old, indeed, we recently learned that the Modfather himself, Paul Weller, had put out a 10th anniversary remaster of his very good solo record ‘Wake Up the Nation.’ We’ve loved the record for all that time, and can personally attest that the remaster sounds amazing. Here’s one of our favorite tracks ‘No Tears to Cry,’ which channels a Northern Soul Groove for its very economical 2:25.

Wednesday’s Gratuitous Soccer Link.
Manchester City 
and West Bromwich Albion dueled to a 1-1 draw on Tuesday, but West Brom manager Slaven Bilic will likely get the chop from his club today, the Guardian reports.

And now you’re up to date.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.