December 16, 2021 | The Death Penalty Information Center relased its annual report Thursday analyzing the country’s use of capital punishment. Like in years past, the report shows significant advancements toward death penalty abolition in 2021, alongside a few concerning instances of backslides into executions.
Advancements Toward Abolition
Virginia Repeals the Death Penalty
One of the most notable advances made in the past twelve months was Virginia’s historic repeal of the death penalty, in which Catholics played a notable role. Virginia’s death penalty abolition made it the first southern and formerly Confederate state to outlaw capital punishment.
With that repeal win, a majority of states (26) have now either fully abolished the death penalty or instituted a formal moratorium on executions.
Executions and Death Sentencing Rates Decline
Continuing the trend of the country’s declining use of the death penalty, 2021 was the seventh consecutive year with fewer than 30 executions and 50 new death sentences nationwide.
Eleven executions were administered in 2021 — the fewest since 1988. Of those executed, all but one had evidence of one or more significant mental or emotional impairments.
Only three states — Alabama, Oklahoma, and Texas — accounted for the majority of death sentences and executions.
New Death Row Exonerations
Two new exonerations brought the total of wrongfully convicted death row prisoners exonerated since 1973 to 186 — or one exoneration for every 8.3 executions.
The two exonerations were both in Mississippi: in January 20221, Eddie Lee Howard, Jr. became the sixth death-row prisoner in the state to be exonerated. Sherwood Brown became the seventh Mississpi death row exoneree in August 2021.
Federal Execution Moratorium
Another 2021 highlight was President Biden’s halt to all federal executions.
The moratorium and policy review announced in July 2021 was precipitated by an unprecedented 13 executions ordered by the Trump administration. The three last executions in the killing spree took place in January 2021, less than ten days before the inauguration of President Biden, the country’s first publicly anti-death penalty president.
Although the moratorium is an encouraging first step, stronger action is needed from the Biden administration to ensure an execution spree like the one seen under the Trump administration never happens again. Advocates are urging President Biden to take the steps within his power to commute the sentences of those on the federal death row.
Backslides In Outlier Jurisdictions
A handful of outlier jurisdictions pursued executions and death sentences in 2021. Of these, most notable included Oklahoma’s problematic restart to executions, which left John Marion Grant convulsing repeatedly and vomiting before his death.
In Arizona and South Carolina, there were moves this year to reinstitute antiquated execution methods like electrocution, firing squad, and the gas chamber, as lethal injection drugs have become more difficult for states to access.
These regressive efforts from a smattering of states are reminders that continued vigilance is required as Catholics work to end the death penalty.