Are attitudes toward executions changing?

Fewer inmates are being sent to die as the drugs become harder to obtain.

Data from the Death Penalty Information Center show executions peaked at 98 in 1999 but are headed this year to a 27-year low. Meanwhile, death sentences are falling off as well.

Just 49 defendants were sentenced to death in 2015, down from 295 in 1998. In Ohio, just one death sentence was issued in 2015, down from three in 2014, four in 2013 and five in 2012, according to Ohioans to Stop Executions.

Ohio hasn’t executed an inmate since January 2014 when the state Department of Rehabilitation and Correction took 26 minutes to kill inmate Dennis McGuire. DRC officials used a previously untested two-drug combination on McGuire, who had been convicted of raping and murdering a pregnant woman in Preble County.

>>>RELATED: Dayton Daily News reporter offers eye-witness account of McGuire’s death.

DRC has since scrapped that lethal injection protocol and the drugs are no longer available to the state.

“We obviously have a problem with the drugs necessary to carry out the executions,” said John Murphy of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association. “We ought to look at some other method of execution because the drugs are difficult to acquire.”

In April 2014 a task force convened by the Ohio Supreme Court recommended 56 revisions to the state’s death penalty law but a report released Wednesday by Ohioans to Stop Executions noted there is little resolve among state leaders to put the most critical fixes into action, including a call for a ban on executing offenders with serious mental illnesses at the time of the crime.

“The Ohio Legislature continues to ignore the most vital reform recommendations while instead trying to address the backlog of prisoners awaiting execution, the Ohioans to Stop Executions report says. “It’s time to stop trying to fix it, and just end capital punishment in Ohio once and for all.”

Ohio has set a January 12 execution date for a man convicted of raping and killing a three-year-old girl in Akron. But it’s unclear whether his execution, or the 25 others that are scheduled into 2020, will take place because the state lacks lethal execution drugs and has struggled to find a supplier.

The reduction in executions and in the number of states that are enforcing death sentences led Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to conclude recently, “I think the death penalty is fading away.” There is not enough support on the court to abolish capital punishment, Ginsburg said, but she added that may not be necessary.

“Most states don’t have any executions. The executions that we have are very heavily concentrated in a few states and even a few counties within those states,” she said in an interview with The Associated Press in July. Ginsburg joined a lengthy dissenting opinion by Justice Stephen Breyer last year that highlighted problems with the death penalty that led the two justices to conclude that it probably is unconstitutional.

Republican Bob Taft, who was governor when Ohio resumed carrying out executions in 1999, wrote in December 2014 that prosecutors have been seeking the death penalty less frequently since state law changed in 1996 to allow for life without parole. “It may be time to ask the question whether the death penalty in Ohio is a ‘dead man walking,’” Taft wrote for UDQuickly, a publication of the University of Dayton.

Ohio isn’t the only state that has suspended or slowed the pace of executions. Oklahoma imposed a moratorium on the death penalty after two problem-filled executions and a third that was called off when prison officials noticed they received the wrong drug.

Alabama and Florida haven’t put anyone to death since January because of questions about the way death sentences are imposed. The highest criminal appeals court in Texas has stopped four executions in the past month and two Texas death row cases are headed to the Supreme Court over different issues.

California has 746 inmates on its death row but hasn’t executed anyone in a decade. California voters will face two ballot questions this fall: one to abolish the death penalty, one to speed up the appeals process.

The longer states go without executions, the harder it may be for them to resume, said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

“The law of inertia is that a body in motion tends to stay in motion. A body at rest tends to stay at rest. There are policy parallels for that with the death penalty. Right now most states are comfortable not executing anybody. And for the most part, the public is comfortable, even in death penalty states, with their states not executing anybody,” Dunham said.

Over the past 25 years, opposition to the death penalty has grown while support has slowly eroded, according to decades of polling by Gallup. But still a solid majority of Americans — 61 percent — back capital punishment, according to Gallup.

If given the option between execution or life in prison without parole, support for capital punishment falls off. A 2015 Quinnipiac University poll of American voters found 48 percent say a person convicted of murder should be sentenced to life without parole, while 43 percent back the death penalty for convicted murderers. (Support for capital punishment rose to 58 percent in cases where the murder occurred during an act of terrorism.)

Ohio currently has 137 men and one woman on death row.

Information from the Associated Press is included in this report.

Thank you for reading the Dayton Daily News and for supporting local journalism. Subscribers: log in for access to your daily ePaper and premium newsletters.

Thank you for supporting in-depth local journalism with your subscription to the Dayton Daily News. Get more news when you want it with email newsletters just for subscribers. Sign up here.