Two people are scheduled to be executed on Tuesday, including one man who, according to his lawyers, is mentally disabled. But when the curtain closes on 2014, the United States will have executed the fewest people in 20 years.
If the executions go through as scheduled, there will have been 35 people killed by the state in 2014. Not since 1994 has America put to death fewer people, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
“The continued downward trajectory of executions is the result of two forces," Cassandra Stubbs, director of the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project, said in a statement to The Huffington Post. The first force, she said, is "growing concerns about the death penalty by key decision makers and the public, including concerns about our inability to protect the innocent and defendants with serious mental illness from its application, the high costs associated with the death penalty, and its unfair and uneven application."
She added that the second contributing factor to the lower number of executions is "enormous problems in the administration of lethal injection, as shown by the very troubling record of botched executions this year.”
Botched executions made headlines this year as states scrambled to find new lethal execution drug cocktails. Several European companies that produce more effective drugs for lethal injection have banned them from use in executions.
But Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which argues for the death penalty, saw different reasons for the lower execution numbers.
Scheidegger told HuffPost it wasn't a good idea to read too much into one year's numbers. There has, however, been a general downward trend since 1999.
Scheidegger said one of the reasons for the lower numbers is that fewer people are committing murder. Another possibility, he said, is that jurors are more reluctant to sentence people to death.
"To the extent they’re just being more selective in terms of reserving the death penalty for the very worst, that’s the idea from the very beginning," Scheidegger said. "But to the extent they may not seek the death penalty because the cost is so high, that is troublesome."
Scheidegger said most of the high financial costs of death penalty cases come in the penalty phase, after a defendant has already been found guilty and the jury must then decide whether they deserve death or life in prison.
That's when, Scheidegger said, the defense can present "the kitchen sink" of mitigating factors that they say should allow their client to avoid a death sentence.
But researchers have previously argued that it is precisely these mitigating factors that go undiscovered until the appeals process, when courts are hesitant to overturn a jury's verdict.
"It's often a tale told too late," Robert Smith, an assistant professor of law at the University of North Carolina, previously told HuffPost. "How many of these people would have not even come close to dying if they had had good lawyers at trial or pre-trial?"