How the Death Penalty Changed in 2015

Executions and death sentences are on the decline, but capital punishment isn’t going down without a fight.

Death penalty protesters outside the U.S. courthouse in Boston during the official sentencing of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokar Tsarnaev on June 24. (Photo: Scott Eisen/Getty Images)

Dec 19, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

Illegally imported drugs. Painful deaths. Spared lives. These aren’t plot points from the latest episode of your favorite TV crime drama; they’re all part of the roller coaster that was capital punishment in the U.S. this year.

Though there were just 28 executions in six states in 2015—the lowest number since 1991, according to a new study from the Death Penalty Information Center—there was no shortage of drama between supporters of the practice and their opponents. Here are a few highlights from the death penalty debate this year.

Lethal Injection Chaos Continues

First thrown into the spotlight in the Supreme Court case of death row inmate Richard Glossip, which challenged the use of the lethal injection drug midazolam, the use and sources of drugs used in executions took center stage. While the court denied Glossip’s request to stay his execution in June, the high-profile case caught the public’s eye again in September. In the final hours before his scheduled execution, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin stayed the execution after it was revealed the corrections department had received the wrong drugs to execute Glossip.

Beyond Glossip’s case, 2015 brought to light the challenges the 31 states that still use the death penalty face in securing lethal injection drugs. In March, the American Pharmacists Association joined other medical associations in officially discouraging its practitioners from providing lethal injection drugs. States had already struggled to obtain the drugs since the European Union banned their sale to the U.S. in 2011. Texas, Arizona, and Nebraska all purchased and attempted to illegally import execution drugs from India this year, according to documents obtained by BuzzFeed.

Conservative Nebraskans Push to Kill the Death Penalty

In May, Democratic and Republican legislators in Nebraska came together to vote against Gov. Pete Ricketts’ veto of a historic bill that outlawed capital punishment. It was the first Republican-controlled state to abolish the death penalty since North Dakota did so in 1973, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Conservatives in the state helped lead the charge against Ricketts’ veto, pushing limited government rhetoric in their outreach efforts, Matt Maly of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty told TakePart.

Advocates for the death penalty immediately launched a massive campaign to reinstate the practice, collecting more than 143,000 signatures to force a statewide referendum on the repeal and put the law on hold, according to The Economist. Voters will take up the issue again in 2016, as those on death row wait in legal limbo.

Supreme Court Justice Calls for a Full Review

Cases concerning the death penalty this year involved specific questions about its use—from which drugs are permissible, to hearings on intellectual disability claims, to jury selection. But in a dissenting opinion in Glossip v. Gross, two justices invited a case that would take on the broader question of capital punishment’s legality.

In their opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg questioned whether the death penalty might be categorically unconstitutional. “Rather than try to patch up the death penalty’s legal wounds one at a time, I would ask for a full briefing” on its constitutionality, Breyer wrote. He noted that most places in the U.S. “have abandoned its use,” adding fuel to his belief that capital punishment could likely be considered cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.

Race and Jury Selection Reach the High Court

In November, lawyers representing inmate Timothy Foster, a black man on Georgia’s death row convicted of killing a white woman, argued before the high court that racial discrimination in jury selection hampered Foster’s chance at justice. Prosecutors and criminal defendants are legally allowed to strike a certain number of prospective jurors from a trial without explanation.

Advocates say this process allows prosecutors to strike black jurors at a disproportionately high rate, making it more likely that black defendants will receive a guilty verdict. In April, Andre Cole was executed in Missouri after his lawyers presented sworn affidavits from a former St. Louis County prosecutor admitting that his office systematically struck black jurors from death penalty cases.