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Executions in US at 20-year low, report finds

A year-end report published about the death penalty paints an optimistic look back at the numbers of sentences and executions throughout the country in 2014.
The lethal injection chamber at a prison in Phoenix, Ariz. (Photo by Q. Sakamaki/Redux)
The lethal injection chamber at a prison in Phoenix, Ariz.

The United States saw the lowest number of executions in two decades in 2014, a year in which intense focus was placed on several high-profile botched executions and questions were raised about new drug cocktails that were used in lethal injections.

Thirty-five people were executed in 2014, according to a year-end report released Thursday by the Death Penalty Information Center. In 2013, 39 people were executed. And the 72 new death sentences handed down this year marked the lowest level since 1974, according to the report. In 1996, there were 315 death sentences.

Seven states carried out executions in 2014, the fewest in 25 years, the report said. Missouri, Texas and Florida each executed more people than the four other states combined: Missouri and Texas executed 10 people, respectively. Florida executed eight residents; Oklahoma executed three people; Georgia executed two people; and Arizona and Ohio each executed one person.

But seven death row inmates were exonerated in 2014, the most in five years, according to the report.

RELATED: Rick Perry: Not sure if botched Oklahoma execution was ‘inhumane’

The United States is one of 40 countries in the world that still employs capital punishment. More than two-thirds — or 141 countries — have abolished the death penalty, according to Amnesty International. Polling shows that, since 1937, support for the death penalty has been as low as 42% in 1966, and as high as 80% in 1994.

Source: Death Penalty Information Center

The legal standard remains that the death penalty is constitutional in the U.S. if it imposes on individuals no more pain than is necessary, which is stated in the Eighth Amendment. The Supreme Court ruled in Panetti v. Quarterman in 2007 that an inmate must have “rational understanding” of the state’s reasons for execution.

In April, Clayton Lockett and Charles Warner were scheduled to be executed with previously untested drugs two hours apart from one another at the state penitentiary in Oklahoma. Lockett, the first to die, suffered a heart attack after officials injected him with a lethal drug. As the drug was being administered, Lockett reportedly shook uncontrollably and gritted his teeth before the eventual failure of his vein. After the botched execution, Oklahoma’s attorney general agreed to a stay of execution for Warner, until Jan. 15, 2015.

Most recently in Texas, a federal appeals court halted the execution of Scott Panetti, a now 56-year-old convicted murderer with a history of more than three decades of severe mental illness. He was scheduled to die on Dec. 3, but a court granted a last-minute stay after his attorneys said Panetti wasn't competent enough to be executed.

RELATED: Conservatives request Rick Perry halt execution of 'mentally ill' inmate

"No matter where you look, you're going to find more and more failures with the death penalty," Marc Hyden, advocacy coordinator for Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty, told msnbc Thursday. “This is not a system that many people want to support when they find out really how broken and really disgusting it can be."