Virginia became the 23rd U.S. state to abolish the death penalty in February, following Colorado, where capital punishment ended in 2020, and New Hampshire, which axed its law in 2019. Virginia had previously been the state which executed the highest share of its death row inmates and was also the state which has counted the most execution throughout history.
Nevada could have been next in line, but a bill that had passed the state house fell through in the state senate last week. The state has been under a court-ordered moratorium on executions after a drugmaker sued it for planning to use its product in an execution. Nevada has recently given back the drug in question.
States carry out most executions in the United States. Federal executions remain exceptionally rare despite several that were carried out in the twilight of the Trump presidency.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, the death penalty is on the books in 27 states but several don't actually carry it out. In seven states, governors or courts have officially halted executions. While governor-imposed moratoriums are in place in Oregon, California and Pennsylvania, courts have halted executions in Nevada, Montana, Indiana and Kentucky, mostly in response to controversy around the drug cocktails used in executions. These have become harder and harder to source which led to some states using questionable alternative mixes. In Kentucky, however, the court order is tied to a lack of provisions for severely mentally ill defendants to avoid the death penalty, a fact that the state legislature is working on amending.
Out of the remaining 20 states, another six have not carried out an execution in ten years or more, either because of a lack of death row inmates, a lack of suitable drugs are a combination of the two. Several more have taken shorter breaks in following through on death sentences over drug sourcing problems, leading to the number of states that have executed someone in the past three years (2018-2020) dropping to nine.
While some states don't seem in a rush to change this status quo, others have recently been taking action to bring executions back. Arizona has said it has been able to source new lethal drugs, while Arkansas and Idaho have made new drug mixes legal. Oklahoma and Mississippi are also confident their executions by lethal injection will resume.
The legal limbo around drugs used in executions has led to some states looking for other methods. South Carolina on May 14 reauthorized the use of the electric chair and the firing squad, while Utah had already changed its law in 2015 to allow firing squads as a backup if lethal injection was not available. The state had previously let death row inmates chose between lethal injection and the firing squad and three people had picked the latter option since 1976, the latest in 2010.