Executions at Record Low Because of COVID-19: Report

Photo by League of Women Voters via Flickr

COVID-19 is helping to produce the fewest death sentences of any year in the last generation, according to a new report.

Along with the continuing broad decline in the use of the death penalty, the pandemic has led to the “suspension or postponement of most capital trials,” concluded the mid-year report of the Death Penalty Information Center, an advocacy group.

At the midpoint of 2020, 13 new death sentences had been imposed in seven states and six executions carried out “by five historically high execution states,” said the report.

The latest one occurred Wednesday night, when Texas executed Billy Joe Wardlow on  for a 1993 robbery and murder. It was the state’s first execution since coronavirus swept through the state, the Texas Tribune reports. Wardlow’s lawyers had argued that his death should be stopped because of the rising pandemic and his young age–18–at the time of the crime.

During Texas executions, witnesses for the inmate and the victim regularly stand closely together with prison officials, chaplains and reporters in separate adjacent rooms. Because of the coronavirus witnesses had their temperatures checked, were required to wear masks, and stayed 6 feet apart.

Florida and California imposed multiple new death sentences this year. but only Texas has carried out multiple executions–two in 2020 so far.

None of the executions carried out since mid-March involved new jury actions.

These numbers would put the country on track to carry out fewer executions than any year since 1991, when there were 14 executions.

Public opinion seems clear, with a Gallup poll in May 2020 finding that a “record low percentage of U.S. adults” now believe that executions are a “morally acceptable punishment,” says the report.

Prior to COVID-19, “relatively few” capital trials were underway in the U.S. After the pandemic struck, defense teams were unable to “safely and meaningfully” investigate their cases. Safety of witnesses and court personnel were in doubt.

In Florida, the trial of accused Parkland shooter Nikolas Crux has been “postponed indefinitely.”

The years 2016 to 2019 already produced four of the five lowest death-sentence years in the U.S. since the 1970s.

“The few death sentences imposed in the first half of 2020 add fuel to long-standing criticisms of the arbitrariness and unreliability of death-sentence proceedings and whose lives matter most in the administration of U.S. criminal laws,” said the report.

“In nearly one-third of the cases, defendants had waived their rights to legal representation and/or their rights to jury trial or sentencing, continuing a disturbing pattern of death sentences resulting for the worst of the legal process.”

The year’s executions also “highlighted continuing trouble spots in the U.S. death penalty,” as all six men who died so far had mental illness, low IQ, brain damage, and/or severe trauma or childhood abuse, said the report.

In the Texas case, Wardlow’s appeals had been denied by the U.S. Supreme Court. Neuroscientists and Texas lawmakers have raised concerns with sentencing people who had committed crimes under 21 to death because of brain immaturity.

The report comes as the federal government prepares to resume executions, amid efforts to delay them.

The full report, “Pandemic and Continuing Historic Decline Produce Record Low Death Penalty Use in First Half of 2020,” can be read here.

This summary was prepared by TCR deputy editor Nancy Bilyeau

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