The unfolding drama in Arkansas – in which a string of executions is going full steam ahead one moment and on pause another – is not just an Arkansas problem. It is indicative of the larger situation of capital punishment in the United States, played out in stark relief.
The United States is in a period of national reconsideration of capital punishment. Indications of doubts about the death penalty abound. Among the most important of these are the dramatic declines that have taken place over the last two decades in both the number of death sentences and the number of executions.
From a high of 315 in 1996, the number of death sentences handed out across the country fell to just 30 in 2016. While in 1999, at the high point of America’s use of the death penalty, 98 people were executed, only 20 executions were carried out in 2016.
This national reconsideration has not been propelled by people having second thoughts about the moral appropriateness of capital punishment or whether people who commit murders deserve, in some abstract sense, to die. Instead, it has been driven by growing doubts about the way the death penalty is administered.
The death penalty system seems to be breaking down. Questions of fundamental fairness have come to the forefront.