On the morning of April 4, 2001, Michelle Curran, 16, was walking to her high school in Las Vegas. On her way, she was kidnapped by 21-year-old Janeen Snyder and her 45-year-old boyfriend, Michael Thornton. For 13 days, the couple abused and tortured Michelle. Then they shot her in the head and left her body in a horse trailer in Southern California.
In 2006, Snyder and Thornton were both found guilty of murder and sentenced to death.
“It was sick what these people did to her,” Michelle’s mother, Candy Curran, told reporters after the conviction. “They got what they deserved.”
Michelle’s torture and murder is exactly the kind of horrific crime that the death penalty is intended for. But two decades later, those sentences have yet to be carried out. Today, Snyder and Thornton remain on death row. In 2019, California Governor Gavin Newsom put a hold on all executions in the state. He declared that capital punishment is flawed at its core.
California’s ban is part of a broader move away from the death penalty. Last year, Virginia became the 23rd state to end the death penalty. It’s one of seven states that have eliminated capital punishment in the past decade. Besides California, two more states that allow the death penalty—Oregon and Pennsylvania—have officially halted all executions (see map, below).
Even in the places where the death penalty remains on the books, it’s being used less. Fifteen death penalty states haven’t executed anyone in the past five years. New death sentences nationwide are down from a high of 315 in 1996 to 18 in 2021. Annual executions have dropped from 98 in 1999 to 11 in 2021.
“The death penalty is disappearing in most of the country—that’s been a 25-year trend,” says Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes the practice. “There are only a handful of states in which it is actually being carried out.”