America’s use of the death penalty declined significantly in 2015, according to a recent report from the Death Penalty Information Center. As of Dec. 15, 49 new death sentences have been imposed this year — the lowest annual number since the 1970s — and 28 executions have been carried out, the lowest number since 1991. The number of people on death row dropped below 3,000 for the first time since 1995.
South Carolina is in step with this sharp national decline. No new death sentences were imposed in South Carolina this year, and our state has not had an execution since 2011. We have had only four new death sentences imposed since 2010, and the current death row population of 44 is the lowest it has been in decades.
There are several factors contributing to this steady decline in the death penalty over the past 15 years.
Public support for the death penalty has dropped in recent years. According to the 2015 American Values Survey, a majority of Americans now prefer life without parole (which South Carolina has) to the death penalty as a punishment for people convicted of murder. Well-publicized cases have drawn attention to pervasive problems in capital sentencing, such as racial discrimination, mental illness and innocence. Nationally, six death row prisoners were exonerated this year, raising the total death row exoneration number to 156 since 1973.
In 2012, Eddie Lee Elmore was released from prison in South Carolina after 31 years, 29 of which he spent on death row, for a crime he did not commit.
The report also found that two-thirds of the 28 people executed in 2015 exhibited symptoms of severe mental illness, intellectual disability, extreme trauma and abuse, or some combination thereof. This is consistent with data collected in 2014 showing that more than 70 percent of South Carolina’s death row population exhibited symptoms of mental illness, intellectual disability and/or organic brain damage.
Although nearly half of all murder victims in America are black, only 6 of 28 people executed in the U.S. this year had killed an African-American victim. Ten of the 28 people executed this year were black.
Once again, these findings correspond closely with South Carolina’s administration of the death penalty. Fifty-nine percent of South Carolina’s current death row population is black, even though African-Americans make up only about 28 percent of the state’s total population. Since 1976, 81 percent of all defendants sentenced to die in South Carolina were sentenced for killing a white victim.
Finally, the complex legal process of a death penalty case makes it far more expensive than life without parole. A majority of death sentences are later reversed on appeal and must be re-litigated, adding to the high cost and lengthy delays for victim’s family members. More than 60 percent of death sentences imposed in South Carolina have eventually been reversed — and, in most of those cases, the individual was resentenced to life in prison.
It is increasingly hard to justify retaining the death penalty in South Carolina. Prosecutors rarely seek it, juries more rarely impose it, and even when the rare individual is sentenced to death, the odds are that the defendant will not be executed. We can no longer afford the financial and social costs of such a broken system.