ATLANTA — 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.
With nine lethal injections in 2016, Georgia accounted for nearly half of the 20 executions nationwide. It was the most inmates the state has put to death in a calendar year since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed executions to resume 40 years ago. It was almost twice as many as the state’s previous record of five, set in 1987 and matched last year.
Texas, meanwhile, executed seven inmates, the fewest the state has put to death since 1996, when three people were executed. Alabama had two executions, and Florida and Missouri had one apiece.
Executions and new death sentences have been on the decline in recent years for a variety of reasons, and that continued in 2016.
Even as Georgia carried out 14 executions in 2015 and 2016, no new death sentences were imposed in the state. Texas sent four people to death row in 2016 and two in 2015.
Georgia typically sets an execution date once an inmate has exhausted all of his appeals. In recent years, however, executions have been halted for months at a time, essentially creating a backlog of inmates who were eligible for execution that was cleared this year.
A legal challenge to the change in the execution method from three drugs to one drug stopped executions in Georgia from July 2012 to February 2013. Executions paused again from July 2013 to May 2014 while lawyers challenged a law that makes secret the source of the state’s execution drugs. And another lull came from March to September 2015 after a drug intended for use in an execution was found to have precipitated, leaving solid chunks floating in what should have been a clear solution.
There are currently no Georgia inmates who are eligible for execution, according to the attorney general’s office, and the state is unlikely to have another record year in 2017.
In Texas, a dozen condemned inmates had their scheduled executions postponed in 2016, some more than once, according to records kept by the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit that provides analysis and information about capital punishment.
A combination of factors led to the 20-year low in Texas, said Kathryn Kase, executive director of the Texas Defender Service.
The state was the first in the country to create a junk science writ, which can give defense attorneys an opportunity to reopen convictions and ask the courts to take a closer look if evidence used to convict the inmate is no longer considered scientifically sound, she said.
The state’s highest court, the Court of Criminal Appeals, has been raising more questions than in the past, causing cases to be delayed. And the U.S. Supreme Court has continued to consider challenges to practices used in Texas, including taking two cases this fall, Kase said.
“We’ve got a hell of a lot of reform going on in a lot of different spheres,” she said. “But that is owed to Texas’ very shameful record of a broken capital justice system.”
Texas already has scheduled nine executions for the first half of next year. There’s no way to know how many will happen, Kase said.
One thing Georgia and Texas have in common that has allowed them to execute more inmates than other states is a seemingly reliable supply of execution drugs. Both states use pentobarbital made by compounding pharmacies whose identities are shielded by law. That has allowed them to overcome shortages caused when traditional drug manufacturers, some bowing to pressure from opponents of capital punishment, refused to sell their products for use in lethal injections.
Ohio, on the other hand, postponed all scheduled executions this year because the state wasn’t able to secure the drugs it needed, and other states also have struggled to get the necessary drugs.
Other states slowed their pace because courts have declared death penalty statutes and systemic practices unconstitutional, said Death Penalty Information Center executive director Robert Dunham.
“That has ended up reversing sentences in cases where people might have been executed otherwise,” he said.