University of Virginia Law professor Brandon Garrett ’97 returned to Yale on Friday to speak about the decline of the death penalty.

Garrett, who came to Ezra Stiles College as a guest of his former student and Ezra Stiles College Dean Nilakshi Parndigamage, spoke about his new book, “End of its Rope: How Killing the Death Penalty Can Revive Criminal Justice,” which examines the causes of the death penalty’s decline in the U.S. and what we can learn from it. While at the University of Virginia Law School, Parndigamage was enrolled in a class Garrett taught on wrongful convictions while drafting his first book, “Convicting the Innocent.” Today, Parndigamage uses that book in her own seminar.

“The thing that was really special about coming back [to Yale] was being invited by [the] dean,” Garrett said. “She was in the first wrongful convictions class I ever taught when I was first researching this. To come back and be a guest in her seminar is really special.”

He began his presentation with a large graph outlining the rise and fall of the annual number of death sentences from 1976 to the present day. Death sentence rates reach their peak in the late ’90s with around 300 to 350 death sentences a year, Garrett said. After the year 1999, the rates began steadily dropping.

When he was in law school, Garrett said, his professors told him the death penalty was ingrained in the American experience and was not going to go away. But, since then, rates have  fallen. Last year, the United States had 39 death sentences, Garrett said.

One reason for the decline in capital punishment is that murder rates have fallen since the ’90s, Garrett said. His research shows that murder rates and death sentences are linked in counties and that prosecutors seek the death penalty more often when the murder rates in their own counties rise.

One shift since the ’90s is that there are no longer death penalty states, only death penalty counties, Garrett said. At one point, he explained, entire states frequently imposed the death penalty, but today most sentences are concentrated in particular counties. And even then, there are few counties that condemn even one person to death every year.

Garrett also spoke of the relation between race and the death penalty. The further cases get into the criminal justice system, the more pronounced racial disparities become, he said. He also found that cities with more racial segregation and a larger black population saw more death sentences handed down.

Mbella Beseka ’20 said he left the talk with a more informed opinion about the history and present status of the death penalty and how it intersects with race in the United States.

Sammy Westfall | sammy.westfall@yale.edu