The United States carried out seventeen executions during the pandemic year 2020. Seven of those executions were carried out by five states (Texas, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, and Missouri), while the federal government carried out the remaining ten. Texas led the states with three executions. Texas has carried out two executions in 2021, the only state that has done so in 2021. The federal government carried out three executions in January before the U.S. Justice Department halted all federal executions on July 1, 2021. Texas has six more executions scheduled for 2021, while Missouri has one.
COVID Deaths on Death Row
All these executions were carried out as the COVID virus ravaged the nation’s prison system. As of May 3, 2021, England’s Oxford University reported that 376,712 inmates in the nation’s prison system had tested positive for the virus leading to the deaths of 2,588 inmates. No one has bothered to keep an actual tally of the number of death row inmates who succumbed to the virus. Oxford University reported that at least 13 inmates on California’s death row died from the virus, while one inmate on Ohio’s death row died from COVID.
In February, Texas prison officials confirmed that one of the state’s death row inmates died from the virus—a 77-year-old man who had spent 27 years on death row.
There is enough senseless death and violence in this country.
The COVID virus killed roughly 375,000 people in the U.S. in 2020, while gun violence claimed nearly 20,000 lives, the most in two decades. There are roughly 2500 people on the nation’s death rows awaiting execution. In this reality of widespread death, the execution of every one of those condemned to die would serve no significant social or penological purpose.
It costs taxpayers anywhere from $137 million to $232.7 million each year to maintain a death penalty system in this country, while a system of lifetime incarceration costs $11.5 million.
Support for Death Penalty Diminished
Support for the death penalty has waned in this country in recent years.
The nearly 150 exonerations of former death row inmates (for every 8.3 people executed, at least one person was wrongfully convicted) have certainly contributed to the declining support for the death penalty in the U.S. Not only are Americans disturbed by the tens of thousands of wrongfully convicted persons in the nation’s prison system, but their appetite for state-sanctioned violence has also diminished. This is likely due, in part, to the prospect that innocent people have been put to death in this country since the death penalty resumed in 1976.
The Death Penalty Information Center reports that at least 20 innocent men have been executed in the U.S. since 1976—nine in Texas alone. One of those nine innocent Texas inmates was Carlos DeLuna, who was executed in 1989. A recent documentary, The Phantom, draws heavily on research by Columbia University Law Professor James Liebman, who believes DeLuna was innocent. The documentary is drawing significant, detailed media coverage, which undermines the credibility of DeLuna’s conviction.
We may never really know if DeLuna was innocent. But we do know this: 150 people who were serving or previously had a death sentence have been exonerated in this country. Those individuals under a death sentence at the time of their exoneration could have been executed, just as DeLuna.
It is easy, then, to extrapolate from these numbers that innocent people have been executed since 1976. Most researchers believe that somewhere between 6 to 10 percent of the nation’s nearly 2 million prison population are innocent. That translates into between 160,000 and 200,000 innocent people currently languishing in the nation’s prison system.
The COVID pandemic has brought enough death both outside and inside of prisons. The pandemic has left healthcare and mental care delivery systems in tatters. Taxpayer money will be needed to rebuild these systems. The cost of long-term care for those inmates who contracted but survived the virus will be staggering. Correctional officers are leaving the profession, and it has become increasingly difficult to replace them. Prison violence is increasing as security gives way to necessity.
This nation can no longer afford the death penalty, morally or fiscally. The taxpayer dollars wasted on maintaining a death penalty system that serves no real social or legitimate criminal justice purpose could be re-directed to meet other more pressing demands within the penal system.
Texas, the undisputed leader in the execution arena, no longer needs the death penalty. It is long past time to abolish this relic of colonialism and systemic racism that continues to infect our criminal justice system.