Experts say the resumption of executions is likely to throw a strong new spotlight on the divisive national — and international — issue of capital punishment.
“When people confront a new wave of executions, they’ll be questioning not only how people are executed but whether people should be executed,” said James R. Acker, a historian of the death penalty and a criminal justice professor at the State University at Albany.
Texas leads the list with five people now set to die here in the Walls Unit, the state’s death house, between June 3 and Aug. 20. Virginia is next with four. Louisiana, Oklahoma and South Dakota have also set execution dates.
Some welcome the end of the moratorium.
More inmates whose appeals have expired are certain to be added to execution rosters soon, including, in all likelihood, Jack Harry Smith, who, at 70, is the oldest of the 360 men and 9 women on Texas’ death row (though hardly a row any more, but an entire compound). Mr. Smith has been under a death sentence for 30 years for a robbery killing at a grocery in the Houston area.
“If it’s my time to go, it’s my time to go,” said Mr. Smith, who maintains his innocence and was delivered by guards for a prison interview in a wheelchair.
Yet public support for capital punishment may be dwindling. Death sentences have been on the decline, and a poll last year by death penalty opponents found Americans losing confidence in the death penalty.
“There will be more executions than people have the stomach for, at least in many parts of the country,” said Stephen B. Bright, president of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, a leading anti-death-penalty litigation clinic.
Last year, Texas accounted for 26 of the 42 executions nationwide. That includes the last two people executed before the Supreme Court signaled a moratorium on executions while considering whether the chemical formula used for lethal injection in Kentucky inflicted pain amounting to unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment. The justices ruled 7 to 2 on April 16 that it did not, while allowing for possible future challenges.
But the scheduling of executions comes as prosecutors and juries have been turning away from the death penalty, often in favor of life sentences without parole, now an option in every death-penalty state but New Mexico.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, death sentences nationwide rose from 137 in 1977, peaked at 326 in 1995 and fell steadily to 110 last year.
“We’re seeing a huge drop-off,” said Mr. Bright, attributing the decline to the time and trouble of imposing death sentences, and a recent wave of exonerations after DNA tests proved wrongful conviction.
Close to 35 people have been cleared in Texas alone, including, just days ago, James L. Woodard, who spent more than 27 years in prison for a 1980 murder he did not commit.