The United States of America is one of only a few countries in the Western world that still puts criminals to death. Even there, executions are on the wane: just 20 were carried out in 2016, down from a peak of 98 in 1999. Popular support is declining, too.
60% of Americans approve of the death penalty for murder, down from 80% in the 1990s. Only eight states have carried out an execution since 2015, and around two-thirds either have abolished capital punishment or have a moratorium on its use. But it has not disappeared altogether: during an eight-day stretch in April, Arkansas executed four people, so as not to waste its expiring supply of a lethal-injection drug.
And last month in Alabama, a man who spent 35 years on death row—and eluded seven execution dates—was finally put to death.
If any factor explains why some criminals get death sentences while most do not, Justice Potter Stewart wrote, “it is the constitutionally impermissible basis of race”. Four years later the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in Gregg v Georgia by a 7-2 majority, finding that states had mended their death-penalty laws to address the concerns in Furman.
The Fifth Amendment provides that nobody will “be deprived of life…without due process of law”.
People with intellectual disabilities and juveniles were spared the ultimate punishment in 2002 and 2005, respectively.
With the Supreme Court’s recently reinforced five-justice conservative majority, that day of reckoning seems far off still.
“Any prospects for the oft-curbed penalty being killed off completely are dim—despite a crusade led by Justice Stephen Breyer, who dissented sharply in Glossip v Gross, a 2015 case asking whether a drug used in lethal injections entailed the risk of torturing prisoners to death.”