In 2016, the U.S. carried out the death penalty 20 times, which is the fewest executions in 25 years.
Ronald Bert Smith, Jr., the twentieth inmate to be executed, died on December 8th in Alabama after a lethal injection process that took a half-hour to kill him, according to The Washington Post.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, only five states carried out executions this year: Florida, Texas, Alabama, Missouri, and Georgia.
Capital punishment laws in the United States are complicated, and a PBS “Frontline” special on the history of the death penalty explains that complications in the U.S. stem, in part, from Constitutional challenges to capital punishment.
Those challenges continue today, even among those in the justice system. Buzzfeed cites a 57-page decision authored by US District Court Judge Geoffrey Crawford during a case decided this week, in which Crawford says that only the Supreme Court can declare that the death penalty is unconstitutional.
Judge Crawford writes:
“Institutional authority to change this body of law is reserved to the Supreme Court. For this reason, the trial court is required to deny the defense motions related to the constitutionality of the death penalty.”
However, Crawford has harsh criticism for how the death penalty is applied, noting that concerns prompting a 1972 Supreme Court decision (Furman v Georgia) to halt executions to address “arbitrariness” still exist today. His opinion names some of those concerns, as noted in the Buzzfeed article:
“The exclusion of many people opposed to the death penalty on religious or moral grounds and the implicit process of persuasion at voir dire that death is the likely outcome create jury populations which stack the deck against defendants.”
“The studies brought to the court’s attention supported the position of the defense that jury selection since Gregg is not the solution to inherent jury bias but rather a substantial part of the problem.”
There are 25 executions planned for 2017. One of those inmates has been granted a reprieve and four others have been granted stays while their cases are reviewed:
The U.S. Supreme Court routinely hears challenges to the death penalty in specific circumstances, but a successful challenge to the constitutionality of capital punishment in terms of 5th, 8th, and/or 14th Amendment remains elusive.