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Don’t Write The Death Penalty Off Quite Yet

In 2015, 28 prisoners have been executed in the U.S., the lowest total since 1991, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit group that tracks statistics on the death penalty. That led Gawker to predict this week that the death penalty is on its way out “in the next decade or three.”

Except it’s not that simple. Yes, a lower number of people were sentenced to death this year than in any of the 41 years tracked by the DPIC (49 in all). But the low rates of executions probably have as much to do with lethal injection’s practical problems as with principled objections to the death penalty.

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Half of the stays of executions that took place in 2015 were because of issues surrounding lethal injection, the most common method of execution.1 The 36 stays that fall into that category in 2015 constitute a higher number than at any point in the past six years, according to Death Penalty Information Center records.

As you can see in the chart, the reasons for those stays varied:

  • Twenty-two stays were granted while prisoners contested the constitutionality of lethal injection in court.
  • Four more stays were granted in Tennessee when prisoners challenged the state’s plans to use electrocution as a means of execution. Tennessee had planned to use the electric chair as a fallback means of execution because lethal-injection drugs were not available.
  • Drug shortages caused another seven stays nationwide.
  • Three stays were the result of miscellaneous problems related to lethal injection (an ongoing investigation, concern over whether drugs had been properly mixed, etc.).

The drug shortages stem from a 2012 European Union decision that prohibited companies from selling the chemicals typically used for lethal injections to companies in the United States if they would be used for executions. The sole U.S. supplier of sodium thiopental stopped manufacturing the drug in 2011. Now, a few years later, states are running out of drugs and are struggling to buy new supplies. The resulting shortages have led states to experiment with lethal-injection protocols that were designed for animals, not human beings, and drugs mixed at non-FDA-certified pharmacies. Several of these redesigned injection programs have resulted in badly botched executions. That has led to court cases that dispute the constitutionality of new lethal-injection methods.

Concerns over America’s ad hoc approach to lethal injections are leading to fewer prisoners being executed, but many of those whose executions were stayed are still intended to be put to death. If an American company begins selling the components of the three-drug execution cocktail again, or if one of the pending lethal-injection cases prompts Supreme Court justices to approve a new drug regime, the low number of executions in 2015 may wind up being an anomaly.

Footnotes

  1. I categorized the stays based on the DPIC’s descriptions of the reasons the stays were issued.

Leah Libresco is a former news writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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