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Religious Tolerance logo

The death penalty in the U.S.

Developments during 2016:

Part 1 of two parts

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lethal injection table

A photo of a stretcher used to
immobilize inmates before lethal injections.

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During 2016, the death penalty remained legal in 31 of the 50 states in the U.S. It is not permitted by law in 19 states plus the District of Columbia. Its use is typically restricted to more serious murder cases. The federal government and some states have included one or more of the following types of homicide as grounds for execution: multiple murders; rape, robbery, or torture, followed by the murder of the victim; murder of an on-duty police officer; murder of a child; treason, major drug offenses, etc.

Almost all democracies across the world have abandoned the death penalty. Some investigators have suggested that executions do not deter murderers. Others argue that the state is devaluing human life when it kills people, and that this results in more murders. Others argue the opposite.

In the U.S., there is still no consensus on whether the death penalty has a deterrent effect on murderers.

The Death Penalty Information Center publishes an "Execution List" each year in the U.S. During the first 10.5 months in 2016, there were 18 executions. Inmates who were executed spent an average of 18 years on death row before their death sentence was carried out. 1

All executions during 2016 were by lethal injection. Most states currently use Pentobarbital as a sedative/anesthetic, followed by pancuronium bromide to paralyze the inmate and stop his 2 breathing. Finally potassium chloride is injected to stop the victim's heart and cause death. 1

Unfortunately for supporters of the death penalty, the European Union has placed an embargo on:

"... products which could be used for the execution of human beings by means of lethal injection, ...[including] short and intermediate acting barbiturate anesthetic agents."

Pentobarbital, sodium thiopental, and other drugs are such agents. As a result, some states have had to defer executions and scour the world for suitable drugs.

Radley Balko, wrote an article in the Washington Post, titled: "The slow decline of the death penalty," He said:

"There have been 15 executions so far this year [as of 2016-AUG], and just two since April. Only five states have carried out executions. Georgia and Texas alone account for 12 of the 15 executions."

According to Gallup polling, while three in five Americans (61 percent) still support the death penalty, that figure also marks a 40-year low. Pew polling also shows a 40-year low, with support even lower, at 56 percent. Among those ages 18 to 29, it’s at 51 percent." 3

Many executions are being delayed because of the unavailability of execution drugs. They are manufactured in Europe, but suppliers have ethical concerns about selling the drugs to the U.S. if they are to be used to execute people. They are also subject to a European Union embargo.

Webmaster's comment [severe bias alert]:

It seems obvious that the United States will eventually follow the lead of its neighboring countries, Canada and Mexico, by abolishing the death penalty. Then, the states will no longer murder people convicted of murder to prove that murdering people is immoral and unacceptable.

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2016-FEB-21: Pope Francis seeks end to the death penalty, worldwide:

Pope Francis urged Catholic political leaders to show "exemplary" courage by working to prohibit executions in their country. He also said that he hopes that executions will eventually be abolished for all crimes, world-wide.

In St. Peter's Square, speaking to tourists and pilgrims, he quoted Exodus 20:13, the sixth of the Ten Commandments. It is variously translated from the original Hebrew into English as "Thou shalt not kill," "Thou shall not murder," and similar phrases.

Pope Francis said:

"The commandment ‘do not kill’ holds absolute value and applies to both the innocent and the guilty. ... [There is] an ever more widespread opposition in public opinion to the death penalty, even only as an instrument of legitimate social defense."

"I make an appeal to the conscience of all rulers, so that we can achieve an international consensus for the abolition of the death penalty. And I propose to those among them who are Catholic to make a courageous and exemplary gesture: that no sentence is executed in this Holy Year of Mercy." 4,5

Pope Francis had announced the Holy Year of Mercy on 2015-APR-10. It started on 2015-DEC-08, which was both the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, and the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council. It will be celebrated world-wide, and ends on Nov. 20, 2016, with the Feast of Christ the King. Its theme is:

"Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful." 6

His appeal appears to have been ignored.

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Pope Francis also said in St. Peter's that:

"... modern societies have the possibility to efficiently repress crime without taking away definitely the possibility to redeem oneself from those who committed [the crime]. ... even criminals hold the inviolable right to life."

The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development. This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty. ..."

"I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes." 5

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U.S. data on public support for the death penalty and the number of executions:

  • Public support for the death penalty reached a peak of 80% in 1995 when the opposition was only 16%. Support has been declining, and opposition increasing ever since. A Pew Research survey in 2016 showed 49% support and 42% opposition. 7

  • At the recent rates of increase support for abolition and decreased support for retention of the death penalty, support and opposition among the U.S. population should be equal sometime in 2017.

  • In 2016-AUG/SEP, a Pew Research poll showed that political party affiliation was a better predictor of support/opposition to the death penalty than gender and race: 34% of Democrats are support the death penalty while 58% oppose it. 72% of Republicans support the death penalty while 21% oppose it. 7

  • The number of executions in the U.S. reached a peak of almost 100 in 1999, and later declined to 20 in 2016. It is on track to reach about 21 by the end of 2016. 7

  • The number of states who executed inmates reached a peak of 20 in 1999 and has been declining since. It is expected to be only 5 states in 2016; Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Missouri and Texas.

  • Since 2008, the United States has been the only country among the countries in North, Central and South America that still performs executions. 8

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This topic, continues in the following essay.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Execution List 2016," Death Penalty Information Center, as of 2016-NOV018, at:
  2. We would normally refer to "his or her breathing" here, except that all executions so far in 2016 have been of males.
  3. Radley Balko, "The slow decline of the death penalty," Washington Post, 2016-AUG-16, at:
  4. "Pope Restates Desire for 'International Consensus' for 'Abolishment of the Death Penalty'," The Blaze, 2016-FEB-21, at:
  5. Marnie Hunter, "Pope Francis calls for one-year moratorium on death penalty," CNN, 2016-FEB-21, at:
  6. "Pope Francis announces extraordinary Holy Year of Mercy," The Catholic Diocese of Raleigh, undated, at:
  7. David Masci, "5 facts about the death penalty," Pew Research Center, 2016-NOV-06, at:
  8. Capital Punishment by country," Wikipedia, as on 2016-NOV-18, at:

Copyright © 2016 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
First posted: 2016-FEB-21
Last updated: 2016-NOV-19
Author: B.A. Robinson

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