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Recent Trends in Execution

Measuring execution over the life span of the “modern era” (i.e., 1976 to present) doesn’t necessarily give us an accurate portrait of our more recent experiences with the geography of execution. Many of these 34 states’ total execution fi gures are infl ated by the past. That is, some states carried out execu- tions somewhat routinely in the early part of the modern era but have been relatively inactive in recent history. For instance, Georgia, which ranks sixth in the total number of executions (69) since 1976, trails only Texas in the number of executions carried out over the past two years with 14. Thus, when

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Table 29.2 Execution Totals by State in the Past 2, 5, 10, and 40 Years

State 1976–2016 2007–2016 2012–2016 2015 & 2016

Texas 538 159 61 20

Oklahoma 112 29 16 1

Virginia 111 13 2 1

Florida 92 28 21 3

Missouri 87 21 19 7

Georgia 69 30 17 14

Alabama 58 23 3 2

Ohio 53 29 7 0

North Carolina 43 0 0 0

South Carolina 43 7 0 0

Arizona 37 15 9 0

Louisiana 28 1 0 0

Arkansas 27 0 0 0

Mississippi 21 13 6 0

Indiana 20 3 0 0

Delaware 16 2 1 0

California 13 0 0 0

Illinois 12 0 0 0

Nevada 12 0 0 0

Utah 7 1 0 0

Tennessee 6 4 0 0

Maryland 5 0 0 0

Washington 5 1 0 0

Nebraska 3 0 0 0

Pennsylvania 3 0 0 0

Kentucky 3 1 0 0

Montana 3 0 0 0

Idaho 3 2 1 0

South Dakota 3 3 2 0

Oregon 2 0 0 0

New Mexico 1 0 0 0

Colorado 1 0 0 0

Wyoming 1 0 0 0

Connecticut 1 0 0 0

we start to pare down the time span of our analysis to more recent years, the landscape changes even further. We calculated execution totals for each state over the past ten, fi ve, and two years using the execution databased created and monitored by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC, 2016e).

The fi gures in Table 29.1 show that over the past ten years (2007–2016) only ten states have carried out an average of at least one execution per year. These states include Texas, Oklahoma, Virginia, Florida, Missouri, Georgia, Alabama, Ohio, Arizona, and Mississippi. There is a rather consistent geographic trend

 

 

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in these fi gures. Seven of these ten states are in the Southern region of the United States. The three states not in the South include two states on the Southern border—Missouri and Ohio—as well as Arizona. Furthermore, we can start to see quite a signifi cant degree of separation between these and the remaining states on the list. Many of these ten states have executed far more than one person per year since 2007. For instance, if we double the minimum number of executions to 20, for an average of at least two per year, only three of the ten states—Arizona, Mississippi, and Virginia—fall off the list.

When we shrink our window to the past fi ve years, we fi nd that the number of states that have kept pace in carrying out executions drops further. Over the past fi ve years (2012–2016), a total of eight states have executed at least fi ve people for an average of at least one execution per year. These states include the ten states listed above that executed an average of at least one person per year over the past decade except Virginia and Alabama. It is important to note, though, that fi ve of these eight states far exceeded the minimum threshold of at least one per year. Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas each executed more than 15 people for a rate of more than three per year since 2012.

Over the past two years (2015–2016), the number of states that have kept pace in executions shrinks further from eight to only fi ve. Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, and Texas each executed at least two people since 2015 for an average of at least one execution per year. However, two of these states—Florida and Alabama—barely eclipsed the mark. Florida has executed three people since 2015; Alabama carried out zero executions in 2015 but executed two people in 2016. The three remaining states of Texas, Missouri, and Georgia all exceeded the threshold quite comfortably.

Exploring execution rates over the past ten, fi ve, and two years reveals two rather consistent geo- graphic trends. First, only four states met the threshold of “an average of at least one execution per year” in each of the three time frames. Three of these states—Texas, Florida, and Georgia—are all fi rmly situated in the Southern region of the United States, and Missouri lies on the Southern border. Furthermore, almost all of these states far exceeded the minimum of one per year in every time frame. Second, fewer states met the threshold each time we narrowed the time frame to more recent years. That is, ten states executed an average of at least one person per year in the past decade. That number dropped to eight over the past fi ve years and fi nally to fi ve states over the past two years.

These fi gures lead to a rather simple yet potentially important conclusion—the United States has experienced a rather signifi cant and consistent decline in executions. This decline, which began in earnest at the turn of the century, saw the total number of executions in 2016 recede to a 15-year low (DPIC, 2016b). Does this decline describe the United States as a whole, though? We’ve learned that executions are distributed very unevenly across geographic space, which calls into question the notion that the United States in general has experienced a decline in executions. To be sure, executions in many states across the U.S. “declined” far before the national fi gures began to drop in the year 2000. What is at issue here is whether the execution decline itself has been (un)evenly distributed across space.

On the one hand, it might be easy to conceive of just a few states declining and thus disproportion- ately driving down national execution totals since 1999. Texas could certainly drive down national execution fi gures all on its own. If, for instance, Texas experienced a precipitous decline in executions, the national total would drop given that Texas accounts for a sizable proportion of all executions in any given year. However, state execution trends over the past several years suggest that most all states, certainly those consistently responsible for most executions, have been in decline. Figure 29.1 shows execution trends from 1990 to 2016 for the U.S. as a whole as well as Texas and Oklahoma, which rank fi rst and second on total executions in the modern era.

The handful of other states that, along with Texas and Oklahoma, form the pack of execution lead- ers in the U.S. have also declined during this time. Except for a few aberrant years in some of states, executions in Virginia, Florida, Missouri, Georgia, Alabama, and Ohio have all slowed to a trickle. In fact, we previously included Virginia and Florida in the fi gure above but ultimately removed them because the lines showing their execution trends were muddied at the bottom of the graph. What makes this particularly intriguing is that it suggests the national decline has not been driven by one or

 

 

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several states acting as outliers and dragging national totals down. Executions have waned in most all of the historical epicenters across the United States.

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