U.S. executions fell in 2014, Amnesty International reports

Executions and death sentences dropped in the United States last year in another sign that support for the punishment may be on the decline, a new report from Amnesty International says.

The United States remained the only country in the Western Hemisphere to carry out executions during 2014, the international human rights group says in a report to be released Wednesday. But the number of executions fell to 35 from 39 the previous year. The number of death sentences handed out also declined, to 77 from 95 in 2013, the group reported. Only seven states conducted executions, down from nine a year earlier.

Four states – Texas, Missouri, Florida and Oklahoma – accounted for 89 percent of U.S. executions last year. Texas and Missouri each executed 10 people. Florida carried out eight executions and Oklahoma had three executions. Georgia had two, and Arizona and Ohio each carried out one.

Chiara Sangiorgio, Amnesty International’s adviser on the death penalty, told McClatchy that the number of executions in Texas marked a substantial reduction from the previous year’s 16, but that Missouri’s total reflected a major increase from 2013’s two.

Oklahoma’s total was down from six.

Eighteen U.S. states no longer have the death penalty, including New York, New Jersey, Maryland, New Mexico and Illinois, Amnesty said, and the number of states that have imposed moratoriums on the use of the death penalty continues to grow, including Oregon, which imposed a moratorium in 2013, Washington state, which halted use of the death penalty last year, and Pennsylvania, which ordered a moratorium in February. Colorado, Nebraska, New Hampshire and Wyoming haven’t conducted executions for at least 10 years.

Sangiorgio said the human rights advocacy group remained “seriously concerned” over racial discrimination in the application of the death penalty. She also cited executions that had taken an unexpectedly long time, including the case of Dennis McGuire in Ohio, who the reports says took 20 minutes to die, and Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma, whose death took 40 minutes.

The report singles out for criticism the executions of two people who were just over 18 at the time they committed their crimes. “Both were African-American,” it notes. “Ray Jasper was tried for murder of a white man in front of all-white juries. Earl Ringo was executed on 10 September in Missouri for the murder of two white people. He was tried in front of an all-white jury."

Worldwide, Amnesty estimated that there were 607 executions officially recorded in 22 countries last year, down nearly 22 percent. But the true number is no doubt far higher.

Amnesty noted, for example, that Iran had officially announced 289 executions but that another 454 had taken place. The report excludes China from its statistics, noting that it executes more people than the rest of the world combined. The report says it suspects that thousands are executed in China but that the numbers are kept secret, so the true figure is difficult to determine.

As of Dec. 31, around 140 countries had abolished the death penalty or had moratoriums in place on executions, the report notes.