Why did the US stop public executions

The US could end the death penalty soon

There have been 113 executions in Virginia since the death penalty was reinstated in the United States in 1976. This puts the twelfth largest state in second place in the US ranking of executions, only beaten by Texas (570). But that's over now. Virginia became the first former southern state to abolish the death penalty on Tuesday night. William Morva, a Midlothian city double murderer who was killed by lethal injection in 2017, remains the last Virginia convict to face this fate.

The increasingly democratic federal state on the east coast is not alone in its decision. Fewer and fewer death sentences have been carried out in the United States in recent years. And the federal government could follow suit. After all, Joe Biden is the first President of the United States to present himself as an opponent of the death penalty in the election campaign. The background to the trend is, on the one hand, clear changes in public opinion and, on the other hand, the renewed discussions in the summer about systematic racism in the police and the judiciary. It's also about PR: Fewer and fewer pharmaceutical companies and chemical groups want to provide the necessary funds to be able to kill people under state sanctions.

No state of emotions

The debate may also be illustrated by an exchange that was observed Monday evening during the discussion in the Virginia House of Representatives. The Republican minority leader Todd Gilbert had accused the Democrats of showing compassion for criminals while they forget about the victims. His Democratic colleague Chris Hurst contradicted this. He really didn't want to say anything about the debate, he began. But the Republican attacks went too far. He is tired of the fact that the subject is always being fished for votes. The USA is a constitutional state and "not a land of emotions. We don't have to be a society that always demands an eye for one eye." Hurst's words carry special weight. His partner at the time, journalist Alison Parker, was shot dead during a live broadcast in 2015.

Meanwhile, polls show that a majority of people in the US are still in favor of the death penalty. It was 55 percent in the latest survey by the Gallup Institute in October last year, in which 43 percent admitted that they refused to be executed. However: this is the lowest value since the early 1970s. In the mid-1990s, around 80 percent of Americans still found the execution of death sentences good. In 2015, too, it was just under two thirds.

Apparently, more and more reports about the release of people from the US death row, whose innocence was established after the verdict - for example by means of DNA analyzes - apparently contributed to the possible beginning of this change of opinion. The NGO Death Penalty Information Center recently collected and published 185 such cases. A total of 9,600 death sentences were pronounced and 1,532 carried out in the United States between 1976 and today. The fact that there could have been innocents among the executed has not been proven - but in view of the number of those convicted who were later dismissed as innocent, according to experts, it cannot be ruled out.

No painless death

At the same time, the number of executions has decreased significantly in recent years. Since the high of 98 in 1999, the number of fatalities has fallen to just 17 by 2020. In the same period, ten other states, before Virginia, removed the death penalty from their statutes. 28 states still have it as a maximum penalty. The deletions are not just for humanitarian reasons. Because implementation is also becoming more and more difficult. Several manufacturers, including all European pharmaceutical companies, have stopped deliveries to the United States of funds that can be used for lethal injection.

Since then, however, the drug pentobarbital has been administered, which according to reports leads to a painful death. According to descriptions, the feeling is said to resemble a slow drowning, a convict said at his execution in 2015 that he felt like his whole body was on fire. For a long time it had been disputed whether the states thereby violate the constitutional law, according to which no "unusual and cruel" methods of punishment may be used. However, the Supreme Court ruled in 2019 that the Constitution did not guarantee convicts a "painless death". Reports of a recent wave of federal prisoners' executions suggest that death is often actually painful.

Trump's wave of executions

The administration of US President Donald Trump had decided last year of his term in office to initiate another wave of executions of people who had been sentenced to death under federal law. Trump had already announced in the 2015 election campaign that he would "bring the death penalty back vigorously". There were a total of three executions between January 13th and 16th of this year alone, twelve in total since last June. At the federal government level, that amounts to more in six months than in the previous six decades. For the first time in 2020, more people were executed by the US judiciary than by those of the states.

A reporter from the AP agency, Michael Tarm, was present at ten of the twelve executions in the prison showroom, according to a report. Obviously he describes painful scenes. Accordingly, he had gained the impression that the abdomen of the convicts had started to twitch after the administration of lethal injections - which speaks for the development of painful pulmonary edema. His descriptions contradict those that the executioners and judicial clerks wrote down after their work was done. According to the official accounts, they put on paper that those punished with death "slept gently" and some died snoring.

2,591 people are currently still on death row in the United States. (Manuel Escher, February 23, 2021)