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3 fact-checks about the death penalty

By Aaron Sharockman
Published on Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014 at 5:13 p.m.

The botched execution of an Oklahoma man and a May U.S. Supreme Court ruling have again put a focus on the death penalty in the United States.

PunditFact and PolitiFact checked a few claims about the death penalty in recent days. Here’s a recap.

Bill Maher: United States No. 5 in executions worldwide

Bill Maher added his mix of humor and seriousness to the discussion on his HBO show Real Time with Bill Maher.

"Why can’t we just kill people? If you want to kill them, and you want to do it humanely, you can definitely put them out. We’ve all been under," Maher said on his May 23, 2014, show. "Then when you’re under … guillotine, shoot them, leave them in a room with a toddler with a gun, anything. It’s just so easy to take human life. It’s ridiculous."

David Frum of The Atlantic tried to bring the conversation back toward seriousness, saying "we’ve seen a remarkable reduction in the number of Americans being executed -- it’s down nearly two-thirds over the past generation."

Maher jumped right back in. "We're fifth in the world," Maher said. "Behind China, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia."

Maher’s claim rates Mostly True.

A majority of countries do not use or prohibit the use of the death penalty, and of those that do, exact data is difficult to find in some cases. But according to Amnesty International’s best estimate, the United States indeed ranks fifth -- behind China, Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The one caveat in Amnesty International’s report is that it admits that its execution totals are just estimates and that the real number of executions are not known. The group says that the countries ranked right below the United States -- Somalia, Sudan and Yemen -- all could have execution totals higher than the reported number.

That, in theory, could push the United States down the list.

At least one country not listed likely does outpace the United States, Amnesty International says. The group did not attempt to tally the number of executions in North Korea, but believes the country executes more people than the United States. "While reliable reports indicate that at least 70 executions were carried out in North Korea, Amnesty International believes the true figure to be much higher," the group wrote in its report.

If true, that would make the United States sixth.

David Frum: But executions are down

PunditFact also looked into Frum’s part of the conversation with Maher. He said, "We’ve seen a remarkable reduction in the number of Americans being executed -- it’s down nearly two-thirds over the past generation."

That turns out to be Mostly True as well.

The best information to consider Frum’s claim comes from the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit organization set up to provide information and statistics about the death penalty. The center tracks the number of executions in the United States each year.

The death penalty in the United States was suspended in 1972 after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Furman vs. Georgia. The court in that case found that a lack of standards in enforcing the death penalty constituted cruel and unusual punishment. The death penalty was reinstated four years later after the court approved more specific sentencing guidelines.

Executions started slowly after the death penalty was reinstated then climbed steadily in the 1990s. The number of executions peaked in 1999 at 98 and has been generally declining since. In 2013, there were a total of 39 executions.

Compared to the peak year of 1999, the number of executions in 2013 were down by 60 percent. That’s not exactly the figure Frum cited, but it’s close, and Frum hedged his statement by adding "nearly."

You can quibble about Frum’s use of the phrase "over the past generation," but experts PunditFact spoke to considered it a minor point.

Florida ACLU: Florida has most death penalty errors

On May 27, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida’s standard for executing intellectually disabled convicts, finding that the state’s IQ cutoff of 70 is too rigid.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion that the standard, "creates an unacceptable risk that persons with an intellectual disability will be executed, and thus is unconstitutional."

Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, said in a statement that Florida’s death penalty system is "broken" and that the Legislature must address its failings.

"Florida is the only state in the country where the vote of a simple majority of jurors can recommend that a person receive a sentence of death. This has contributed to our state’s record of having the most errors and exonerations from death row."

PolitiFact found that claim to be Half True.

According to a count by the Death Penalty Information Center, Florida has exonerated 24 death row inmates -- the most of any state in the nation. But another resource that uses a different definitions of "exoneration" and has a different time period -- the National Registry of Exonerations -- shows Florida had eight exonerations, fewer than Illinois, Louisiana and Texas.

The ACLU's claim makes it seem like Florida is unchallenged for the most exonerations, but the data is actually murkier.

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Researchers: Aaron Sharockman, Amy Sherman

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