Death Sentences Dropped to Historic Lows As Trump Admin Ramped Up Federal Executions: Report

Death sentences and executions dropped to historic lows in 2020 even as the federal government embarked upon an unprecedented execution spree, a new report has revealed.

The U.S. government carried out more executions than all 50 U.S. states combined for the first time in the nation's history, according to the Death Penalty Information Center's (DPIC) year-end report.

Seventeen people were executed in 2020—down from 22 last year, according to the report. Ten of them were federal death row inmates put to death after the Trump administration resumed federal executions over the summer, ending a 17-year moratorium.

Executions at the state level halted completely after Texas killed Billy Joe Wardlow on July 8, out of public health concerns due to the coronavirus pandemic.

But days later, despite the worsening health crisis, the federal government moved forward with executions that reportedly contributed to a coronavirus outbreak at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana.

Execution protest
Demonstrators protest federal executions of death row inmates, in front of the US Justice Department in Washington, DC, on December 10, 2020 Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

Last week, Brandon Bernard and Alfred Bourgeois died by lethal injection in what were the first two of five executions scheduled to take place before President Donald Trump leaves office, despite a lawsuit filed by prisoners seeking to stop them.

The report says the federal government has conducted more executions in the past six months than during any other presidency in the 20th or 21st centuries.

The Trump administration also performed the first executions by a lame-duck president in more than a century, and scheduled more executions than ever before during a presidential transition period.

The DPIC's report notes that only five states—Alabama, Georgia, Missouri, Tennessee and Texas— carried out executions in 2020, with only Texas putting more than one person to death. According to the report, it was the lowest number of executions carried out at the state level since 1983.

The DPIC's report also estimated that there will be a record low of new death sentences handed out in 2020.

The report predicts only 18 new death sentences by the end of the year—a sharp drop from the previous record low of 31 in 2016.

Most of those sentences were imposed in the first three months of the year before the pandemic delayed trials across the country. However, the report adds that even then, it was apparent that 2020 was on track to see fewer than 50 death sentences for the sixth consecutive year.

"While the resumption of trials delayed by the pandemic may artificially increase the number of death verdicts over the next year or two, the budget strain caused by the pandemic and the need for courtroom space to conduct backlogged non-capital trials and maintaining a functioning court system may force states to reconsider the value and viability of pursuing expensive capital trials," the report added.

Meanwhile, Colorado became the 22nd state to abolish the death penalty, while two other states, Louisiana and Utah, reached a decade with no executions.

"At the end of the year, more states and counties had moved to end or reduce death-penalty usage, fewer new death sentences were imposed than in any prior year since capital punishment resumed in the U.S. in 1970s, and states carried out fewer executions than at any time in the past 37 years," Robert Dunham, DPIC's executive director and the lead author of the report, said.

"What was happening in the rest of the country showed that the administration's policies were not just out of step with the historical practices of previous presidents, they were also completely out of step with today's state practices."

The racial disparities exhibited in this year's executions continued decades-long trends, the report also noted.

Almost half of the defendants executed in 2020 were people of color. Five were Black, one was Latino and one was Native American.

"Racism has always infected the use of the death penalty and this year is no exception, Ngozi Ndulue, DPIC's Senior Director of Research and Special Projects, said. "The death penalty—as the most severe punishment—must be part of the efforts to address racism in the criminal legal system as a whole."

Ndulue was the lead author of the DPIC's report Enduring Injustice: the Persistence of Racial Discrimination in the U.S. Death Penalty, published in September.