(Reuters) - The number of executions carried out in the United States dropped in 2019 and public support for the death penalty fell to nearly a five-decade low, according to a report released on Tuesday.
Twenty-two executions were carried out during the year, down from 25 in 2018. Texas conducted nine executions, while Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia conducted three apiece in 2019.
It was the fifth straight year with fewer than 30 executions, marking a sharp decline from 52 in 2009, the Death Penalty Information Center said in its annual report.
It was also the fifth year in a row with fewer than 50 death sentences handed down, a steep decrease from the 118 imposed in 2009, said the non-profit organization that collects data on the death penalty in the United States.
Support for capital punishment dropped to a 47-year low as 60% of Americans told a Gallup poll they preferred life imprisonment over the death penalty. In 2014, the last time the poll asked the question, 45% of Americans said they preferred life over the death penalty, the report said.
Public support for the death penalty was driven down as the guilt of several condemned inmates in high-profile cases came into question in 2019, said Robert Dunham, the center’s executive director.
“2019 came close to being the year of executing the innocent,” he said in the report. “Our courts and public officials too frequently flat out ignore potentially deadly mistakes, and often take steps to obstruct the truth.”
One such case was that of Rodney Reed, who was scheduled to be executed on Nov. 20, two decades after he was convicted and sentenced to death in Texas for the killing of his 19-year-old lover. After questions arose about evidence in the case and calls for Reed’s exoneration grew more intense, a Texas appeals court halted his execution.
The final execution in the United States this year took place last Wednesday when Texas put to death Travis Runnels, who was convicted of killing a prison supervisor.
The year also saw two states taking action against the death penalty. California imposed a moratorium on executions and New Hampshire became the 21st state to abolish the death penalty.
In announcing reprieves to all 737 inmates on death row and closing California’s execution chamber, Governor Gavin Newsom said the death penalty discriminated against poor and minority defendants and those who suffer from mental illness.
“Our death penalty system has been, by all measures, a failure,” said the Democratic governor of the most-populous U.S. state.
Plans by President Donald Trump’s administration to resume federal executions in December after a 16-year hiatus were dashed by a U.S. judge who halted the scheduled executions of four inmates on death row. In early December, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the decision.
Reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Chicago; Editing by Peter Cooney