December 1, 2023 | A new report by the Death Penalty Information Center demonstrates that the United States continues to shift away from the death penalty in 2023.
Majority of States Move Away from Executions and Death Sentences
2023 was the ninth consecutive year with fewer than 30 executions and fewer than 50 new death sentences. The 24 executions this year were conducted by just five states: Alabama, Florida, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas.
These five states are notable outliers, especially when compared to the 29 states which have either abolished the death penalty or paused executions by executive action.
New death sentences arose in only seven states this year: Alabama, Arizona, California, Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Texas. This was the first year that the number of executions exceeded the number of new death sentences (21).
2023 marked a slight increase in the number of executions compared to the past five years. This rise can be partly attributed to a recent resumption of executions in Florida. The state executed six people this year after an almost four-year pause.
Public Opinion says Death Penalty is Unfair
The annual Gallup Crime Survey indicated that, for the first time since polling Americans’ opinions on the death penalty in 2000, more Americans believe the death penalty is applied unfairly (50%) than fairly (47%).
The survey also demonstrates that general support for the death penalty continues to decline, and opposition continues to grow. These trends are reflective of an American society that is increasingly turning away from capital punishment.
Innocence and the Death Penalty in 2023
With three new exonerations this year, and two additional exonerations recorded which had previously not been documented, the number of death-row exonerations since 1973 reached 195.
Several innocence cases this year received significant publicity and attention from the media, elected officials, and other notable decision makers.
One of these was the case of Richard Glossip. Mr. Glossip has maintained his innocence for more than 25 years on death row. His claim garnered the support of an independent law firm, a bipartisan group of Oklahoma lawmakers, and even the state’s new attorney general, Gentner Drummond.
AG Drummond supported Mr. Glossip’s clemency hearing in April 2023, although he was denied clemency by the state’s parole board after a split vote of 2-2. AG Drummond then supported Mr. Glossip’s appeal for a stay of execution at the United States Supreme Court.
That stay was granted, and Mr. Glossip was not executed this year.
Developments in the States
Two states paused executions in 2023. Arizona’s newly elected governor, Katie Hobbs, announced an executive order to pause executions and conduct a “comprehensive and independent review” of the state’s death penalty processes almost immediately after taking office.
In Pennsylvania, Governor Josh Shapiro announced that he would continue the moratorium on executions that was established by his predecessor. He also asked his government to promote legislation to repeal the death penalty in the state saying: “The Commonwealth shouldn’t be in the business of putting people to death. This is a fundamental statement of morality.”
In Louisiana, Governor John Bel Edwards announced for the first time his formal opposition to the death penalty. The term-limited governor supported a mass application for clemency from 56 out of the 57 individuals on the state’s death row, but the campaign faced serious opposition. Edwards is term-limited and will leave office in January 2024.
A few states moved in the opposite direction this year, approving new execution methods as it becomes more challenging to obtain lethal injection drugs from unwilling pharmaceutical companies. Idaho approved death by firing squad and Alabama approved the untested method of nitrogen asphyxiation.
In South Carolina, a secrecy bill was passed to hide the identities of pharmaceutical companies who provide lethal injection drugs — a desperate attempt to keep lethal injection alive.
The Federal Death Penalty
The Biden administration maintains the temporary execution moratorium established by the president in 2021. But that has not stopped the Department of Justice (DOJ) from pursuing new federal death sentences.
This year, the DOJ sought death sentences in two federal cases. Sayfullo Saipov, who was found guilty of killing eight people when he drove a truck onto a New York City bike path, received a life sentence instead of the death penalty.
But Robert Bowers, who killed 11 people in an attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, became the first person to receive a federal death sentence since 2019.
Encouragingly, federal legislation to abolish the death penalty was reintroduced this year by Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin. The bicameral Federal Death Penalty Prohibition Act of 2023 would not only end the death penalty at a federal level, but it would also require that all federal death sentences be commuted.
This legislation was first introduced in 2019.