The Death Penalty in Decline

Annual report by the Death Penalty Information Center shows the U.S. saw fewer executions and death sentences in 2015 than it has in decades

This year, Montana was among 44 states that did not conduct an execution and one of the 36 states that did not impose a single death sentence, joining a growing consensus against the use of capital punishment.

Across the nation, the use of the death penalty continued to decline, according to a new report released by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC). Executions reached their lowest level in a generation, at 28. 49 people were sentenced to death this year, the lowest number in over 40 years. Montana has not performed an execution in nearly a decade, and hasn’t handed down a death sentence since 2004.

Events this year highlighted the risks of our death penalty system. Questions about the safety and legality of lethal injection protocols halted executions in numerous states. Montana currently sits in legal moratorium as earlier this year, the district court found the state’s lethal injection protocol to be unconstitutional.

In states that did carry out executions, many of the executed inmates showed signs of serious mental illness or intellectual disability, making them functionally indistinguishable from those who the Supreme Court has said cannot be executed.

The first person executed in the U.S. in 2015 was Andrew Brannan, a decorated Vietnam veteran whose military service left him with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder so severe that the Veterans Administration recognized him as 100% disabled. He was executed for killing a Georgia state trooper during a traffic stop in which Brannan displayed erratic behavior and begged the officer to shoot him.

This June, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer wrote an historic dissenting opinion , calling for a consideration of whether the death penalty is unconstitutional. He wrote, “In 1976, the Court thought that the constitutional infirmities in the death penalty could be healed; the Court in effect delegated significant responsibility to the States to develop procedures that would protect against those constitutional problems. Almost 40 years of studies, surveys, and experience strongly indicate, however, that this effort has failed.”

For all the reasons Justice Breyer described – unreliability, arbitrary application, and a growing national consensus against its use – it is time to repeal the death penalty in Montana. Just a year from now the Montana legislature will gather and decide the future of Montana’s capital punishment system.

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