U.S. executions of prisoners hit lowest point since 1991

The number of U.S. executions fell to a quarter-century low in 2016 as new death sentences plummeted, indicating capital punishment is on the decline, a study released on Wednesday showed.

California imposed 9 death sentences in 2016, even though it hasn't executed a prisoner in 10 years

In this Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015 file photo, a unidentified prisoner on death row stands in his cell at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, in Jackson, Ga. Georgia led the nation this year in the number of inmates put to death, an anomaly that's due at least in part to executions in Texas dipping into single digits for the first time in 20 years. (David Goldman/The Associated Press)

The number of U.S. executions fell to a quarter-century low in 2016 as new death sentences plummeted, indicating capital punishment is on the decline, a study released on Wednesday showed.

The number of U.S. executions in 2016 was 20, the lowest since 1991, according to the study from the Death Penalty Information Center, which monitors capital punishment.

While 31 states have the death penalty, only five held executions in 2016, the fewest number of states to administer the punishment since 1983. Georgia carried out the most at nine while Texas was next at seven, followed by two in Alabama and one each in Missouri and Florida.

Only 30 people were sentenced to death in the United States this year, the lowest number since the early 1970s and a further sign of the steady decline in use of the death penalty.

The number is a sharp drop from the 49 death sentences last year and just a fraction of the peak of 315 in 1996.

"I think we are watching a major political climate change concerning capital punishment and it's reflected among reduced death sentences across the country," said Robert Dunham, the group's executive director.

The growing reluctance of juries to sentence defendants to death is one of several factors contributing to the overall drop in executions. Twenty people were executed this year, the fewest since 1991, when 14 people were put to death. The high-water mark was in 1999, when there were 98 executions.

Justice decries randomness of death penalty

Other factors leading to a drop in executions include shortages of the drugs needed to carry out lethal injection and more robust legal challenges by defendants in capital cases.

About half of Americans still support the death penalty according to a Pew Research Center poll earlier this year, but that is the lowest level in more than four decades. Public support for capital punishment peaked in the mid-1990s, when 80 percent of Americans favoured it.

Yet the issue still causes deep divisions. Voters in California and Nebraska declined to abolish the death penalty in their states when they considered referendums last month. And states like Ohio and Oklahoma that have halted executions over problems with lethal injection drugs are trying to figure out how to resume.

Capital punishment remains legal in 31 states.

Just five states sentenced more than one person to death in 2016. California imposed nine death sentences, followed by five in Ohio, four in Texas, three in Alabama and two in Florida. But California hasn't executed any of the 741 inmates on its death row since 2006 due to legal challenges over its lethal injection method.

"As fewer states use the death penalty and as it's used more sparingly in the states that do, we can expect long-term numbers to remain low and perhaps continue to drop," Dunham said.

Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer last week renewed his call for the high court to consider whether the death penalty is unconstitutional. Breyer dissented from the court's refusal to take up a Florida death row inmate's appeal.

He said defendants who face death sentences are not society's worst criminals but are "chosen at random, on the basis, perhaps of geography, perhaps of the views of the individual prosecutors, or still worse on the basis of race."

So far, only Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has joined Breyer in questioning the constitutionality of the death penalty.

Jordan Steiker, a University of Texas Law School professor and director of its Capital Punishment Center, said states looking to resume executions are going to face stiff legal challenges.

"We are on a path toward constitutional abolition. The length of that path will be dictated by uncertainties concerning the Supreme Court's composition and how much the withering of the death penalty continues," he said.

With files from The Associated Press