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Death penalty in US is near historic low even as Tennessee executes 3 this year

Executions and new death sentences across the country stayed near historic lows in 2018, according to the Death Penalty Information Center's year-end report.

While Tennessee resumed executions this year, the overall use of the death penalty is declining in the U.S. 

Executions and new death sentences across the country stayed near historic lows in 2018, according to the Death Penalty Information Center's year-end report. It will be the fourth straight year with fewer than 30 executions and fewer than 50 new death sentences.   

"The clear long-term trend in the United States is away from the death penalty," said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. "That is evidenced by the continuing near-record low number of new death sentences and low number nationwide of executions."   

The national nonprofit does not take a position on the death penalty, but is critical of the way it is implemented and carried out, Dunham said. 

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"The cases that resulted in new death sentences or executions continued to exemplify systemic concerns about the death penalty," the year-end report states. "Those executed in 2018 included prisoners with serious mental illness, borderline intellectual disabilities, and childhood trauma or neglect."

What is the status of the death penalty in the US?

Twenty-five people were put to death in eight states in 2018 compared with the 23 inmates executed in 2017, the report states. Year over year, Texas executed more people than any other state with seven in 2017 and 13 in 2018. 

The Death Penalty Information Center projects that 42 new death sentences will be handed down in 14 states and by the federal government before the year is up. Texas and Florida have imposed the largest number of new capital sentences with seven apiece in 2018.  

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In addition to executions and new sentences reaching near historic lows, the report points to other evidence of continued decline of the death penalty in the U.S., including Washington state abolishing the death penalty. This year the state became the 20th to outlaw it.   

Polls show that support for the death penalty has not changed much, the report says, but they do demonstrate that "Americans increasingly lack confidence in the fairness of its application and have little appetite for its expansion." 

The report also points to elections as evidence of the continued erosion.

"Election results provided concrete evidence that the death penalty has lost its power as a wedge issue and that overly punitive prosecution practices — including heavy use of the death penalty — have become a political liability in more and more local prosecutorial elections," the report states.  

Two prisoners on death row in California and Florida were exonerated in 2018, and governors in Ohio and Texas commuted the death sentences of three inmates to life in prison. 

What is the status of the death penalty in Tennessee?

Juries handed down only one new death sentence in Tennessee this year.

In March, Urshawn Miller was sentenced to death for the 2015 killing of a convenience store clerk in Jackson, according to a WBBJ news report.   

Tennessee also resumed executions in 2018 after nearly a decade without any. The state put three men to death this year.  

"As executions have gone down, each year there has been some state that has gone on an execution spree," Dunham said. "We had Missouri a couple of years ago. ... Last year it was Arkansas. This year it's Tennessee going into next year." 

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On Aug. 9, the state of Tennessee executed Billy Ray Irick by lethal injection. Edmund Zagorski died by electric chair on Nov. 1 and so did David Earl Miller on Dec. 6. Each of their cases raised questions about the state's implementation of the death penalty.

"The death penalty is a very serious issue," Dunham said. "If we're going to have a death penalty, it is important that it is administered openly, honestly, fairly with meaningful review by the courts, and I don't think any neutral observer would say proceedings in Tennessee met that criteria."  

South Dakota and Nebraska also resumed executions this year. In Tennessee, execution dates have been set in 2019 and 2020 for six more men. 

"Even with these sprees, the long-term trend is still down," Dunham said.  

Reach Holly Meyer at hmeyer@tennessean.com or 615-259-8241 and on Twitter @HollyAMeyer. 

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