The number of people executed in the United States this year dropped to the lowest level since 1991, as states impose fewer death sentences and defendants in capital cases get access to better legal help. The Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit organization that opposes capital punishment and tracks the issue, says 28 inmates were executed as of Dec. 15, down from 35 last year and far below the peak of 98 in 1999. Another 49 criminal defendants received death sentences this year, down 33% from 2014 and the lowest number since the early 1970s. The numbers reflect a steady decline in death sentences over the past 15 years and a broad shift in public attitudes that has made capital punishment increasingly rare, says the group's executive director.
About 61% of Americans support the death penalty in murder cases, according to a Gallup poll in October, but that share has inched downward while opposition has crept up. While capital punishment remains legal in 31 states, only six states accounted for all the executions this year—Florida, Missouri, Georgia, Oklahoma, Texas, and Virginia. Texas led the way with 13 executions, followed by six in Missouri and five in Georgia. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court upheld Oklahoma's use of a controversial sedative in lethal injection executions, but two justices said for the first time they think it's "highly likely" the death penalty itself is unconstitutional. (Conservative Justice Antonin Scalia told an audience this year that he wouldn't be surprised if the court invalidates the death penalty.)