Data Shows Most States Moving Away From Use of the Death Penalty

A total of 24 people were executed this year, while 21 were sentenced to death.

Death row cell block inside a maximum security prison.
Death row cell block inside a maximum security prison. (photo: Mr Doomits / Shutterstock)

New data indicates that a majority of U.S. states are shifting away from imposing the death penalty on prisoners, with few states this year ordering death sentences and even fewer carrying executions out.

Catholic Mobilizing Network (CMN), a group that works “to end the use of the death penalty” around the United States, said in a press release this month that data from the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) showed “a majority of states (29) have now either abolished capital punishment or paused executions by executive action.”

The DPIC’s 2023 annual report revealed that five states executed people this year, while seven states sentenced people to death. A total of 24 people were executed this year, while 21 were sentenced to death.

DPIC data show that executions in the U.S. rose sharply after the Supreme Court in 1976 reinstated the death penalty in the United States. They peaked in 1999 with nearly 100 executions and have been on a mostly unbroken downward trajectory since then, though 2023’s two dozen executions were up from 18 the year before.

Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy, the executive director of Catholic Mobilizing Network, said in the group’s press release that it was “encouraging that we saw most states growing more and more reluctant to engage with the death penalty this year.”

“It’s not lost on the American public that capital punishment is too flawed and risky, too arbitrary and unfair, too cruel and dehumanizing to justify pursuing executions,” she said.

In its report, the DPIC said that 2023 was the ninth consecutive year with fewer than 30 people executed and fewer than 50 people sentenced to death.

The group also noted that this year, for the first time, Gallup found more Americans (50%) believe the death penalty is applied unfairly than believe it is applied fairly (47%).

Several U.S. states carried out executions this year despite pleas from activists. In October, Texas executed Jedidiah Murphy, who had been sentenced to death for the shooting of 80-year-old Bertie Lee Cunningham in October 2000.

CMN argued prior to Murphy’s execution that capital punishment is “rooted in revenge rather than repair.” 

That same month Florida executed convicted double murderer Michael Zack III over the 1996 killings of two women.

The Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops had urged Gov. Ron DeSantis to commute Zack’s sentence, arguing that the execution would “only further fuel the growing societal disrespect for the dignity of human life.”

Last week Bishop Joe Vasquez of the Diocese of Austin, Texas, celebrated Mass at the prison housing Texas’ seven female death row inmates, five of whom have converted to Catholicism during their time awaiting execution. 

“You belong to the Church just as much as anybody else. The walls may separate us, but the walls can never keep Christ down,” Bishop Vasquez said to the women during the Mass.