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Executions down in 2021, but still used for mentally ill, intellectually disabled

Executions down in 2021, but still used for mentally ill, intellectually disabled
Of the 11 executions carried out in 2021, three were by the federal government, three in Texas, two in Oklahoma, and one each in Missouri, Alabama and Mississippi.  File Photo courtesy of Doug Smith/Florida Department of Corrections/Wikimedia Commons

Dec. 16 (UPI) -- The United States handed out and conducted the fewest number of executions in decades in 2021, but nearly all executions involved prisoners with mental illnesses or intellectual disabilities, an analysis of data revealed Thursday.

The United States carried out 11 executions in 2021 -- three federal and eight at the state level. That figure is down from 17 in 2020 and a high of 98 in 1999 since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976. The last time there were this few executions was in 1988.

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The issuing of death sentences also hit a five-decade low, with 18 new sentences in 2021, the same as 2020. That's down from a high of 315 in 1996.

Meanwhile, Virginia became the 23rd state in the country to abolish the use of the death penalty in March.

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The Death Penalty Information Center -- which doesn't take a position on the death penalty but provides resources and data to the public -- said that while the pandemic played a role in the smaller number of executions this year, the figures are indicative of Americans' overall attitudes.

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The organization on Thursday released its annual year-end report looking at trends in the use of the death penalty in the United States.

A Gallup poll released in November found that 54% of American adults favor the use of the death penalty as a punishment for those convicted of murder, down from 55% in 2020 and 80% in the mid-1990s.

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"The death penalty grew increasingly geographically isolated in 2021 and public support dropped to its lowest levels in a half-century," said Robert Dunham, DPIC's executive director.

"Virginia's repeal created a death-penalty-free zone along the U.S. Atlantic coast that now runs from the Canadian border of Maine to the northern border of the Carolinas. In the west, an execution-free zone spans the Pacific coast from Alaska to Mexico. The handful of states that continue to push for capital punishment are outliers that often disregard due process, botch executions, and dwell in the shadows of long histories of racism and a biased criminal legal system."

Of the 11 executions carried out in 2021, three were by the federal government, three in Texas, two in Oklahoma, and one each in Missouri, Alabama and Mississippi. The year began with the end of former President Donald Trump's federal execution spree, which ultimately saw the lethal injections of 13 people, including Lisa Montgomery, Corey Johnson and Dustin Higgs in January.

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Prior to July 14, 2020, with the execution of Daniel Lewis Lee, the U.S. government hadn't executed anyone since Louis Jones Jr. in 2003.

Despite the fewer executions in 2021, DPIC Deputy Director Ngozi Ndulue said those that do occur mostly target "the most vulnerable of the vulnerable," not the "worst of the worst."

"The federal government began 2021 with the last three executions of the historically aberrant federal execution spree, executing people with severe mental illness, intellectual disability and unexamined evidence of innocence," she said.

"The state executions since then followed the same pattern. All but one prisoner executed this year had significant impairments such as serious mental illness; brain injury or damage; an IQ in the intellectually disabled range; or chronic serious childhood trauma, neglect and abuse."

The DPIC said racism also "continued to infect the death penalty" last year, with 55.65% of all death sentences going to Black or Latin defendants and 56% of all prisoners executed being Black.

The Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty also issued its annual year-end report Thursday, saying that the state's ongoing challenges involving the assessment of intellectual disability in capital cases and concerns about freedom of religion played a large part in 2021's decline in executions.

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"Texas's death penalty is a mess -- and it's a mess of its own making," said Kristin Houlé Cuellar, TCADP executive director and author of the report.

"Inconsistencies, arbitrariness, and dysfunction continue to plague the capital punishment system at a tremendous cost. Individuals whose cases are rife with errors, unfairness and the unequal application of the law are still coming within days of being put to death by a state more concerned about what a pastor might say in the execution chamber than the protection of constitutional rights."

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