In a year in which three botched executions added renewed fervor to the national debate over capital punishment, the number of convicted murderers sentenced to death across the United States was the lowest in 20 years.
The number of executions carried out nationally also dropped significantly. Thirty-five death-row inmates were executed – the lowest number in four decades.
The executions occurred in seven states, but 80 percent of them were in Texas, Missouri and Florida.
North Carolina was not among the states. A de facto moratorium on executions has been in place since 2006, when a series of lawsuits challenged the humanity and fairness of such punishment.
In North Carolina, where 150 prisoners are on death row, juries issued three new death sentences this year; 72 were issued nationwide.
Though three death sentences is an increase over the one returned in 2013 and none in 2012, North Carolina has averaged fewer than three death sentences a year. That is in sharp contrast with the 1990s, when more than two dozen people were often sent to death row in a single year.
“The relevancy of the death penalty in our criminal justice system is seriously in question when 43 out of the 50 states do not apply the ultimate sanction,” Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said upon release of the 2014 numbers. “The U.S. will likely continue with some executions in the years ahead, but the rationale for such sporadic use is far from clear.”
Botched lethal injections occurred in Ohio, Oklahoma and Arizona this year.
In North Carolina, meanwhile, the longest-serving death row inmate was exonerated.
Henry McCollum and his brother, Leon Brown, who served 30 years in prison for a 1983 rape and murder of an 11-year-old Robeson County girl, were declared innocent by a judge and ordered released in September. The brothers, both mentally disabled, had been coerced into false confessions that they quickly recanted, according to court testimony. The case against them, which had been weak from the start, fell apart when DNA evidence implicated another man.
McCollum was on death row. Brown initially was sentenced to death, but he eventually got life without parole until his exoneration this fall.
“Considering everything we have seen this year – innocent people released from death row, horribly botched lethal injections in several states – it’s no wonder the people of North Carolina no longer feel comfortable with executions,” said Gretchen M. Engel, executive director of the Durham-based Center for Death Penalty Litigation.
In October, the Gallup Poll released results showing that six in 10 Americans favor the death penalty for convicted murderers – an attitude that has remained generally consistent over the past seven years.
The survey found that Democrats’ support for the death penalty has dropped significantly over the past two decades, to 49 percent from 75 percent.
Support among Republicans is also down nine percentage points, according to Gallup, and the unaffiliated support has dropped 18 percentage points.