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Capital punishment in the United States


Capital punishment in the United States

Capital punishment (also called the death penalty or execution) in the United States is a legal sentence in 32 states[1] and the federal civilian and military legal systems. Its application is limited by the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution to aggravated murders committed by mentally competent adults.

Capital punishment was a penalty for many felonies under reinstated in 1976, thirty-four states have performed executions.

In 2013, 39 inmates were executed in the United States,[2] and 3,088 were on death row[3] – an execution rate of less than 2%. Many states such as Texas, Oklahoma, Florida, Ohio, and Arizona regularly execute convicted murderers. Texas has performed the most executions by far, and Oklahoma has had (through mid-2011) the highest per capita execution rate.[4]


  • History 1
    • States without capital punishment 1.1
      • Abolition before statehood 1.1.1
      • Other early repeals 1.1.2
      • Abolition 1.1.3
    • Puerto Rico 1.2
    • Suspension by the Supreme Court 1.3
    • Capital punishment resumed 1.4
  • New concerns post-Furman 2
  • Legal process 3
    • Direct review 3.1
    • State collateral review 3.2
    • Federal habeas corpus 3.3
    • Section 1983 contested 3.4
    • Mitigating factors 3.5
  • Methods 4
  • Debate 5
  • Minimum age 6
  • Distribution of sentences 7
    • Among those sentenced 7.1
    • Among races 7.2
    • Among genders 7.3
  • Location of executions: public versus private 8
  • Clemency and commutations 9
  • Suicide on death row and volunteering for execution 10
  • Exonerations from death row and executions of innocent prisoners 11
  • Current moratoria and de facto moratorium 12
  • See also 13
  • References 14
  • Further reading 15
  • External links 16


The United States first legalized and used lethal injection as a method of execution.

The first recorded death sentence in the British North American colonies was carried out in 1608 on Captain George Kendall,[5] who was executed by firing squad[6] at the Jamestown colony for allegedly spying for the Spanish government.[7]

During the American Revolutionary War, British Major John André was hanged by the Continental Army at Tappan, New York on October 2, 1780, after being convicted of espionage.

The Espy file,[8] compiled by M. Watt Espy and John Ortiz Smykla, lists 15,269 people executed in the United States and its predecessor colonies between 1608 and 1991. From 1930 to 2002, 4,661 executions were carried out in the U.S, about two-thirds of them in the first 20 years.[9] Additionally, the United States Army executed 135 soldiers between 1916 and 1955 (the most recent).[10][11][12]

The largest single execution in United States history was the hanging of 38 Dakota people convicted of murder and rape during the brutal Dakota War of 1862. They were executed simultaneously on December 26, 1862, in Mankato, Minnesota. A single blow from an axe cut the rope that held the large four-sided platform, and the prisoners (except for one whose rope had broken and who had to be re-hanged) fell to their deaths.[13] The second-largest mass execution was also a hanging: the execution of 13 African-American soldiers for taking part in the Houston Riot of 1917. The largest non-military mass execution occurred in one of the original thirteen colonies in 1723, when 26 convicted pirates were hanged in Newport, Rhode Island by order of the Admiralty Court.[14]

States without capital punishment

Abolition before statehood

Several states have never had capital punishment, the first being Michigan, which abolished it shortly after entering the Union. (However, the United States government executed Tony Chebatoris at the Federal Correctional Institution in Milan, Michigan in 1938.) Article 4, Section 46 of Michigan's fourth Constitution (ratified in 1963; effective in 1964) prohibits any law providing for the penalty of death. Every attempt to overturn that provision has failed, the most recent being a ballot proposal in 2004.[15]

The two newest states, Alaska and Hawaii, abolished the death penalty prior to statehood, though Alaska executed eight men when it was a territory (1900–1959).[16]

A map showing the use of the death penalty in the United States.
  State does not use the death penalty.
  State uses the death penalty.

Other early repeals

Other states with long histories of no death penalty include Wisconsin (the only state with only one execution), Rhode Island (although later reintroduced, it was unused and abolished again), Maine, North Dakota, Minnesota, West Virginia, Iowa, and Vermont. The District of Columbia has also abolished the death penalty; it was last used in 1957. Oregon abolished the death penalty through an overwhelming majority in a 1964 public referendum[17] but reinstated it in a 1984 joint death penalty/life imprisonment referendum by an even higher margin after a similar 1978 referendum succeeded but was not implemented due to judicial rulings.


The District of Columbia and the following 18 states currently do not have an enforceable death penalty statute:
State Abolition Date
 Michigan 1846
 Wisconsin 1853
 Maine 1887
 Minnesota 1911
 Alaska 1957
 Hawaii 1957
 Vermont 1964 1
 Iowa 1965
 West Virginia 1965
 North Dakota 1973
 Massachusetts 1984 2
 Rhode Island 1984
 New Jersey 2007
 New York 2007 2
 New Mexico 2009 3
 Illinois 2011
 Connecticut 2012 3
 Maryland 2013 3


  1. Vermont retains capital punishment for treason.
  2. In these states, the death penalty statute was struck down by court ruling.
  3. In these states, the death penalty is enforceable for offenses committed before the repeal; that is, abolition was not retroactive.

New Mexico may yet execute two condemned inmates sentenced prior to abolition. Connecticut may also execute eleven inmates sentenced before abolition. In Illinois, where recent abolition legislation took effect on July 1, 2011, all former death row inmates have been moved to regular jail cells.[18] In Maryland, the repeal of the death penalty is prospective in nature, as was the case in New Mexico and Connecticut. However, Governor Martin O'Malley can commute the remaining five death sentences to life without parole, though he has yet to decide if he is going to do so. O'Malley plans to look into it on a "case by case basis."

Only five of the above states have legislatively abolished the death penalty in the so-called "modern era of capital punishment" (that is, post-Gregg v. Georgia), and only two have attained de facto abolition through their state judiciaries; the remainder either abolished capital punishment before the moratorium was lifted or had statutes that were struck down and did not reinstate the death penalty.

In 2007, New Jersey became the first state to repeal the death penalty in the modern system of capital punishment,[19] followed by New Mexico in 2009 (though not retroactively, permitting the future execution of two inmates on the state's death row), and Illinois in 2011 (with the governor commuting the death sentences of all death row inmates).[20][21][22] However, in states with a large death row population and regular executions, such as Texas,[23][24] the death penalty remains strongly in the landscape and is unlikely to end any time soon.[25][26][27][28][29][30]

Four states in the modern era, Nebraska in 2008, New York and Kansas in 2004, and Massachusetts in 1984, had their statutes ruled unconstitutional by state courts. The death rows of New York and Massachusetts were disestablished. Of the four states, only Nebraska has performed executions since the constitutionality of capital punishment was affirmed by the Supreme Court in 1976, the four states having done so last in 1997, 1963, 1965, and 1947, respectively. In New York and Massachusetts, attempts to restore the death penalty were unsuccessful,[31][32] while Kansas successfully appealed State v. Kleypas, the Kansas Supreme Court decision that declared the state's death penalty statute unconstitutional, to the U.S. Supreme Court – and death sentences continue to be sought. New York had previously abolished the death penalty temporarily, in 1860.[33] Nebraska has performed three executions since 1976, all in the 1990s; its statute has been ineffective since February 8, 2008, when the method used, electrocution, was ruled unconstitutional by the Nebraska Supreme Court. However, Nebraska has since enacted a bill providing for executions by lethal injection.

On April 5, 2012, the Connecticut Senate passed a bill (20 to 16) that would abolish the death penalty for future crimes. The House of Representatives had passed similar bills in earlier sessions, but they had always failed to win approval in the Senate. The bill was later passed in the House on April 11 (86 to 62), and on April 25, Governor Dan Malloy signed the bill into law.[34][35] Connecticut has executed only one person in the last 50 years. As with New Mexico, Connecticut's repeal of capital punishment is not retroactive, so the 11 inmates currently on death row may still be executed, along with those convicted of capital crimes committed before the repeal went into effect.

On February 21, 2013, a bill to repeal capital punishment in Maryland passed in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Commission 6-5; it passed the Senate 27-20 on March 6. The House of Delegates Judicial Committee passed the bill 14-8 the week of March 11; the bill passed the House 82-56 on March 15. It was not until May 2, 2013 that Governor Martin O'Malley signed the bill into law. Maryland's repeal of the death penalty is not retroactive.[1]

The only jurisdictions with current death penalty statutes that have not performed an execution since 1976 are New Hampshire, Kansas, and the United States military, although all have populated death rows. Also, New Jersey executed no one between 1976 and 2007, when it abolished the death penalty.

Puerto Rico

The United States territory of Puerto Rico has no death penalty. Puerto Rico instituted a four-year moratorium on the death penalty in 1917. The last execution took place in 1927, and the Puerto Rican legislature abolished the death penalty in 1929.[36]

Puerto Rico's constitution expressly forbids capital punishment, stating "The death penalty shall not exist", setting it apart from all U.S. states and territories other than Michigan, which also has a constitutional prohibition (eleven other states and the District of Columbia have abolished capital punishment through statutory law). However, capital punishment is still applicable to offenses committed in Puerto Rico, if they fall under the jurisdiction of the federal government, though federal death penalty prosecutions there have generated significant controversy.[37]

Suspension by the Supreme Court

The United States Supreme Court building
Executions in the United States since 1960

Capital punishment was suspended in the United States from 1972 through 1976 primarily as a result of the Supreme Court's decision in U.S. 238 (1972). The last pre-Furman execution was that of Luis Monge on June 2, 1967. In this case, the court found that the death penalty was being imposed in an unconstitutional manner, on the grounds of cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Supreme Court has never ruled the death penalty to be per se unconstitutional.

In Furman, the

In a five-to-four decision, the Supreme Court struck down the impositions of the death penalty in each of the consolidated cases as unconstitutional. The five justices in the majority did not produce a common opinion or rationale for their decision, however, and agreed only on a short statement announcing the result. The narrowest opinions, those of Byron White and Potter Stewart, expressed generalized concerns about the inconsistent application of the death penalty across a variety of cases but did not exclude the possibility of a constitutional death penalty law. Stewart and William O. Douglas worried explicitly about racial discrimination in enforcement of the death penalty. Thurgood Marshall and William J. Brennan, Jr. expressed the opinion that the death penalty was proscribed absolutely by the Eighth Amendment as "cruel and unusual" punishment.

Instead of abandoning capital punishment after Furman, 37 states enacted new death penalty statutes that attempted to address the concerns of White and Stewart. Some states responded by enacting mandatory death penalty statutes which prescribed a sentence of death for anyone convicted of certain forms of murder. White had hinted that such a scheme would meet his constitutional concerns in his Furman opinion.

Other states adopted "bifurcated" trial and sentencing procedures, with various procedural limitations on the jury's ability to pronounce a death sentence designed to limit juror discretion. The Court clarified Furman in Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U.S. 280 (1976) and Roberts v. Louisiana, 428 U.S. 325 (1976), 431 U.S. 633 (1977), which explicitly forbade any state from punishing a specific form of murder (such as that of a police officer) with a mandatory death penalty.

Capital punishment resumed

Capital punishment since 1976
(by jurisdiction)
Jurisdiction Executions
[nb 1]
Current death row inmates
[nb 2]
Texas 518 276
Oklahoma 111 49
Virginia 110 8
Florida 89 404
Missouri 79 39
Alabama 56 198
Georgia 54 90
Ohio 53 144
North Carolina 43 160
South Carolina 43 47
Arizona 37 123
Louisiana 28 85
Arkansas 27 33
Mississippi 21 49
Indiana 20 14
Delaware 16 18
California 13 745
Illinois 12 0[nb 3]
Nevada 12 78
Utah 7 9
Tennessee 6 75
Maryland 5 4
Washington 5 9
Federal govt. 3 63
Idaho 3 11
Kentucky 3 35
Montana 3 2
Nebraska 3 11
Pennsylvania 3 188
South Dakota 3 3
Oregon 2 36
Colorado 1 3
Connecticut 1 12
New Mexico 1 2
Wyoming 1 1
Kansas 0 10
New Hampshire 0 1
U.S. military 0 6
Total[nb 4] 1,392 3,035
No current death penalty statute: Alaska, Connecticut[nb 5], Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland[nb 6], Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico[nb 7], North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, Wisconsin, District of Columbia, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and U.S. Virgin Islands.

Statute ruled unconstitutional: Massachusetts[nb 8] and New York[nb 9].


  1. ^ As of November 19, 2014; source
  2. ^ As of October 1, 2014; source
  3. ^ "Quinn signs death penalty ban, commutes 15 death row sentences to life".  
  4. ^ Some inmates are on death row in more than one state, so the total may be lower than sum of state numbers.
  5. ^ "Connecticut governor signs death penalty repeal".  
  6. ^ Simpson, Ian (2 May 2013). "Maryland becomes latest U.S. state to abolish death penalty".  
  7. ^ Baker, Deborah (3 March 2009). "New Mexico Bans Death Penalty".  
  8. ^ Massachusetts' death penalty statute was ruled unconstitutional in 1984. source The most recent execution was in 1947. The state has no death row.
  9. ^ New York's death penalty statute was ruled unconstitutional on June 24, 2004. The last person who was still on death row was re-sentenced to life in prison without parole on October 24, 2007. source The most recent execution was in 1963. The state has no death row.

In 1976, contemporaneously with Woodson and Roberts, the Court decided U.S. 153 (1976) and upheld a procedure in which the trial of capital crimes was bifurcated into guilt-innocence and sentencing phases. At the first proceeding, the jury decides the defendant's guilt; if the defendant is innocent or otherwise not convicted of first-degree murder, the death penalty will not be imposed. At the second hearing, the jury determines whether certain statutory aggravating factors exist, whether any mitigating factors exist, and, in many jurisdictions, weigh the aggravating and mitigating factors in assessing the ultimate penalty – either death or life in prison, either with or without parole.

The 1977, the Supreme Court's Kennedy v. Louisiana decision barred the death penalty for child rape. The result of these two decisions means that the death penalty in the United States is largely restricted to cases where the defendant took the life of another human being. The current federal kidnapping statute, however, may be exempt because the death penalty applies if the victim dies in the perpetrator's custody, not necessarily by his hand, thus stipulating a resulting death, which was the wording of the objection. In addition, the Federal government retains the death penalty for non-murder offenses that are considered crimes against the state, including treason, espionage, and crimes under military jurisdiction.

Executions resumed on January 17, 1977, when Gary Gilmore went before a firing squad in Utah. But the pace was quite slow due to the use of litigation tactics which involved filing repeated writs of habeas corpus, which succeeded for many in delaying their actual execution for many years. Although hundreds of individuals were sentenced to death in the United States during the 1970s and early 1980s, only ten people besides Gilmore (who had waived all of his appeal rights) were actually executed prior to 1984.

The Supreme Court has placed two major restrictions on the use of the death penalty. First, the case of Atkins v. Virginia, decided on June 20, 2002,[38] held that the execution of mentally retarded inmates is "cruel and unusual punishment" prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. Generally, a person with an IQ below 70 is considered to be mentally retarded. Prior to this decision, between 1984 and 2002, forty-four mentally retarded inmates had been executed in the United States.[39]

Second, in 2005, the Supreme Court's decision in Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005) abolished executions for persons under the age of 18 at the time of the crime.

New Mexico repealed its death penalty statute on March 17, 2009, becoming the second state (after New Jersey) to abolish the death penalty since executions resumed in 1976. The law, signed by Governor Bill Richardson, took effect on July 1, 2009 and replaces the death penalty with a life sentence without the possibility of parole. The law, though, is not retroactive; inmates currently on New Mexico's death row and persons convicted of capital offenses committed before this date may still be sentenced to death under New Mexico's pre-existing death penalty statute.[40] Connecticut abolished its death penalty on April 25, 2012. The measure was first approved by the General Assembly in 2009, but vetoed by then-governor M. Jodi Rell;[41] it was approved by her successor, Dan Malloy.[42] As in New Mexico, the Connecticut repeal was not retroactive, leaving 11 inmates on death row.

Possibly in part due to expedited federal habeas corpus procedures embodied in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, the pace of executions has picked up. Since the death penalty was reauthorized in 1976, 1,386 people have been executed, almost exclusively by the states, with most occurring after 1990. Texas has accounted for over one-third of modern executions[23][24] and over four times as many as Oklahoma, the state with the second-highest number. California has the greatest number of prisoners on death row but has held relatively few executions. See the table for the number of executions and death row inmates by jurisdiction.

New concerns post-Furman

In the decades since

  • Video depicting the abolition of capital punishment in the United States between 1846 and 2012 on YouTube
  • Prisoners Executed Under Civil Authority in the United States, by Year, Region, and Jurisdiction, 1977-2012 Bureau of Justice Statistics
  • United States of America: Death Penalty Worldwide Academic research database on the laws, practice, and statistics of capital punishment for every death penalty country in the world.

External links

  • Bakken, Gordon Morris, ed. Invitation to an Execution: A History of the Death Penalty in the United States. University of New Mexico Press; 2010.
  • Banner, Stuart (2002). The Death Penalty: An American History. Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-00751-4.
  • Bessler, John D. Cruel and Unusual: The American Death Penalty and the Founders' Eighth Amendment. Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press, 2012.
  • Delfino, Michelangelo and Mary E. Day. (2007). Death Penalty USA 2005 – 2006 MoBeta Publishing, Tampa, Florida. ISBN 978-0-9725141-2-5; and Death Penalty USA 2003 – 2004 (2008). MoBeta Publishing, Tampa, Florida. ISBN 978-0-9725141-3-2.
  • Dow, David R., Dow, Mark (eds.) (2002). Machinery of Death: The Reality of America's Death Penalty Regime. Routledge, New York. ISBN 0-415-93266-1 (cloth), ISBN 0-415-93267-X (paperback) (this book provides critical perspectives on the death penalty; it contains a foreword by Christopher Hitchens)
  • Garland, David (2010). Peculiar Institution: America's Death Penalty in an Age of Abolition. Harvard University Press.
  • Hartnett, Stephen John (2010). Executing Democracy, Volume 1: Capital Punishment and the Making of America, 1683-1807. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press.
  • Hartnett, Stephen John (2012). Executing Democracy, Volume 2: Capital Punishment and the Making of America, 1635-1843. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press.
  • Megivern, James J. (1997), The Death Penalty: An Historical and Theological Survey. Paulist Press, New York. ISBN 0-8091-0487-3
  • Osler, Mark William (2009). Jesus on Death Row: The Trial of Jesus and American Capital Punishment. Abingdon Press. ISBN 978-0-687-64756-9
  • Prejean, Helen (1993). Dead Man Walking. Random House. ISBN 0-679-75131-9 (paperback)
    (Describes the case of death row convict Elmo Patrick Sonnier, while also giving a general overview of issues connected to the Death Penalty.)

Further reading

  1. ^ a b Simpson, Ian (2 May 2013). "Maryland becomes latest U.S. state to abolish death penalty".  
  2. ^ "Death Row U.S.A. Fall 2014". 
  3. ^ "Death Row Inmates by State and Size of Death Row by Year". 
  4. ^ "The Execution State?". Oklahoma Watch. 2013-02-21. Retrieved 2013-10-29. 
  5. ^ Death Penalty Information Center (2010). "Part I: History of the Death Penalty, Death Penalty Information Center". Retrieved April 12, 2011. 
  6. ^ david waksman. "Is there a Death Penalty in America?". 
  7. ^ "History of the Death Penalty in America". Retrieved December 1, 2011. 
  8. ^ "Espy file". Retrieved December 1, 2011. 
  9. ^ Department of Justice of the United States of America
  10. ^ "The U.S. Military Death Penalty". Retrieved December 1, 2011. 
  11. ^ John A. Bennett
  12. ^ "Executions in the Military". Retrieved December 1, 2011. 
  13. ^ "The Dakota Conflict Trials of 1862". Retrieved July 17, 2006. 
  14. ^ John T. Brennan, Ghosts of Newport: Spirits, Scoundrels, Legends and Lore (The History Press, 2007), pg. 15 [1](Retrieved Google Books on July 20, 2009)
  15. ^ "Strong opposition sinks proposed amendment" by Dawson Bell, Detroit Free Press, published March 19, 2004, accessed September 17, 2011
  16. ^ Green, Melissa S. (July 20, 2001; revised September 21, 2001). "A History of the Death Penalty in Alaska".  
  17. ^  
  18. ^ "Illinois death row inmates moved to regular jail cells". Reuters. July 2, 2011. Retrieved July 2, 2011. 
  19. ^ Richburg, Keith B. (December 14, 2007). "N.J. Approves Abolition of Death Penalty; Corzine to Sign". The Washington Post. Retrieved April 28, 2010. 
  20. ^ a b "Quinn signs death penalty ban, commutes 15 death row sentences to life".  
  21. ^ (English) Maria Medina, « Governor OK with Astorga capital case »
  22. ^ "New Mexico governor bans death penalty".  
  23. ^ a b Lundin, Leigh. "Executed Prisoners in Texas". Last Words. Criminal Brief. Retrieved November 5, 2010. 
  24. ^ a b Lundin, Leigh (August 22, 2010). "Last Words". Capital Punishment. Criminal Brief. 
  25. ^ "No serious chance of repeal in those states that are actually using the death penalty". March 25, 2009. Retrieved December 1, 2011. 
  26. ^ AG Brown says he'll follow law on death penalty
  27. ^ "lawmakers-cite-economic-crisis-effort-ban-death-penalty". Fox News. April 7, 2010. Retrieved December 1, 2011. 
  28. ^ "death penalty is not likely to end soon in US". International Herald Tribune. March 29, 2009. Retrieved December 1, 2011. 
  29. ^ "Death penalty repeal unlikely says anti-death penalty activist". November 22, 2008. Retrieved December 1, 2011. 
  30. ^ "The Lantern – A new Texas? Ohio's death penalty examined". Retrieved December 1, 2011. 
  31. ^ Powell, Michael (April 13, 2005). "In N.Y., Lawmakers Vote Not to Reinstate Capital Punishment". The Washington Post. Retrieved April 11, 2008. 
  32. ^ Ring, Dan (November 8, 2007). "House rejects death penalty".  
  33. ^ "WHEN NEW YORK HAD NO DEATH PENALTY; Punishment for Murder Under Law of 1860 Curiously Limited to a Year in Prison.". The New York Times. January 21, 1912. Retrieved October 30, 2009. 
  34. ^ "RECENT LEGISLATION: Death Penalty Repeal Passes Second Connecticut House, Awaits Governor's Signature | Death Penalty Information Center". 2012-04-12. Retrieved 2012-04-30. 
  35. ^ "Connecticut governor signs bill to repeal death penalty". FOX News Network, LLC. April 25, 2012. Retrieved April 25, 2012. 
  36. ^ wide/usa/puerto-rico-a-special-case.html – 'Puerto Rico – A Special Case' by the German Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty
  37. ^  
  38. ^ "DARYL RENARD ATKINS, PETITIONER v. VIRGINIA". June 20, 2002. Retrieved August 6, 2006. 
  39. ^ "List of Defendants with Mental Retardation Executed in the United States | Death Penalty Information Center". July 28, 2006. Retrieved December 1, 2011. 
  40. ^ "Illinois poised to abolish death penalty". Reuters. January 11, 2011. 
  41. ^ "Governor Rell Vetoes HB 6578, An Act Concerning the Penalty for a Capital Felony" (Press release). State of Connecticut. June 5, 2009. Retrieved March 9, 2011. Governor M. Jodi Rell today vetoed HB 6578, An Act Concerning the Penalty for a Capital Felony, which sought to eliminate the death penalty as a sentencing option in Connecticut. 
  42. ^ Stoehr, John. "Connecticut Activists Seek to Abolish the Death Penalty, and Gov. Malloy Says He'll Sign the Bill if it Lands on His Desk, Hartford Advocate Feb 15, 2011". Retrieved December 1, 2011. 
  43. ^ "Unpredictable Doom and Lethal Injustice: An Argument for Greater Transparency in Death Penalty Decisions". Journalist's 
  44. ^ a b "Death Penalty for Offenses Other Than Murder". Death Penalty Information Center. 2008. Retrieved January 28, 2008. 
  45. ^ Florida styles what would be common law rape as "sexual battery." Found in The 2009 Florida Statutes § 794.011(2)(a) & (8)(c), available at
  46. ^ See The 2009 Florida Statutes § 782.04(1)(a)(3), available at
  47. ^ "Legislative Information". Retrieved December 1, 2011. 
  48. ^ Communications Office of California.
  49. ^ The ESPY file for James Coburn
  50. ^ McCafferty, James A. Capital Punishment. Aldine Transaction. pp. 45–46.  
  51. ^ Reifsnyder, Richard (1955). "Capital Crimes in the States". Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology 45 (6). Retrieved 18 October 2013. 
  52. ^ Savitz, Leonard D. (1955). "Capital Crimes as Defined in American Statutory Law". Journal of Criminal Law 46. Retrieved 18 October 2013. 
  53. ^ Mears, Bill (June 25, 2008). "Child rapists can't be executed, Supreme Court rules". CNN. Retrieved March 11, 2011. 
  54. ^  
  55. ^ Browse Caselaw
  56. ^ Click "Offender Search" at the top. Search for "Sears, Demarcus" in the name search.
  57. ^ Newman, Roger K. (1999). Eighth Amendment. In: The Constitution and its Amendments, Volume 3, p. 123-130. New York, NY: Macmillan Reference USA.
  58. ^ The death penalty for drug kingpins: Constitutional and international implications. By Eric Pinkard. Fall, 1999. Vermont Law Review. "In 1994 Congress enacted the Federal Death Penalty Act (FDPA) with provisions permitting the imposition of the death penalty on Drug Kingpins. The FDPA is unprecedented in American legal history in that the death penalty can be imposed in cases where the Drug Kingpin does not take a human life."
  59. ^ Chambless, Ann B. (November 11, 2011). "A story back in time". The Daily Sentinel. Retrieved August 27, 2013. 
  60. ^ "Negro Is First To Die For Night Burglary".  
  61. ^ However, Ross McAfee was gassed by  
  62. ^ "People v. Wright , 55 Cal.2d 560". 
  63. ^ Berry, Irene; O'Hare, Sheila and Silva, Jesse (2006). Legal Executions in California: A Comprehensive Registry, 1851–2005. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, p. 61.
  64. ^ Niles' National Register 23. January 4, 1823. p. 288. 
  65. ^ "The Sad Story of Private Eddie Slovik". Retrieved December 1, 2011. 
  66. ^ Berry, Irene; O'Hare, Sheila and Silva, Jesse (2006). Legal Executions in California: A Comprehensive Registry, 1851–2005. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, p. 10.
  67. ^ "People v. Monk , 56 Cal.2d 288". 
  68. ^ "RAPE WHERE VICTIM LIVED". May 12, 2009. Archived from the original on 2009-05-12. Retrieved December 1, 2011. 
  69. ^ "Record Book of Col John Todd". Retrieved December 1, 2011. 
  70. ^ See, e.g., Hill v. McDonough.
  71. ^ See generally Separation of powers.
  72. ^ a b "Department of Justice: Capital Punishment, 2010 Figures". Journalist's 
  73. ^ a b See, e.g., 18 U.S.C. § 3595. ("In a case in which a sentence of death is imposed, the sentence shall be subject to review by the court of appeals upon appeal by the defendant.")
  74. ^ See generally Appeal.
  75. ^ a b Poland v. Arizona, 476 U.S. 147 152-54 (1986).
  76. ^ Eric M. Freedman, "Giarratano is a Scarecrow: The Right to Counsel in State Postconviction Proceedings, Legalize Drugs" 91 Cornell L. Rev. 1079, 1097 (2001)
  77. ^ Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288, 306 (1989).
  78. ^ LaFave, Israel, & King, 6 Crim. Proc. § 28.11(b) (2d ed. 2007).
  79. ^ LaFave, Israel, & King, 6 Crim. Proc. § 28.11(a) (2d ed. 2007).
  80. ^ a b Eric M. Freedman, "Giarratano is a Scarecrow: The Right to Counsel in State Postconviction Proceedings," 91 Cornell L. Rev. 1079, 1097 (2006).
  81. ^ House v. Bell, 126 S. Ct. 2064 (2006)
  82. ^ "Habeas Corpus Studies". The New York Times. April 1, 1996. Retrieved April 28, 2010. 
  83. ^ "frontline: the execution: readings: the new speed-up in habeas corpus appeals". Retrieved December 1, 2011. 
  84. ^ see 28 U.S.C. § 2255.
  85. ^ "Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994)". Retrieved December 1, 2011. 
  86. ^ The Espy File
  87. ^ MSU website page on Death Penalty information
  88. ^ "Nebraska court bans the electric chair". CNN. February 8, 2008. Retrieved December 1, 2011. 
  89. ^ Liptak, Adam (February 9, 2008). "Electrocution Is Banned in Last State to Rely on It". Nebraska: NY Times article. Retrieved December 1, 2011. 
  90. ^ Nebraska Supreme Court opinion
  91. ^ Death Penalty Info Fact Sheet
  92. ^ NAACPLDF DRUSA, Spring 2006.
  93. ^ State-by-state methods of execution. Retrieved February 4, 2009.
  94. ^ New Hampshire Laws, TITLE LXII: Criminal Code, Chapter 630: Homicide, Section 630:5, Procedure in Capital Murder. – Clause XIV. From statutes 1974, 34:10. 1977, 440:2. 1986, 82:1. 1990, 199:3, eff. Jan. 1, 1991. Found at General Court of New Hampshire State Official website. Retrieved February 4, 2009.
  95. ^ Revised Code of Washington, RCW 10.95.180 (Title 10, Chapter 10.95, Section 10.95.180) "Death penalty – How executed." Found at Washington State Legislature Official website. Retrieved February 4, 2009.
  96. ^ "Lacking Lethal Injection Drugs, States Find Untested Backups". NPR. 2014-10-26. 
  97. ^ Brian Evans, "The Death Penalty In 2011: Three Things You Should Know", Amnesty International, March 26, 2012, in particular the map, "Executions and Death Sentences in 2011"
  98. ^ "ReligiousTolerance". ReligiousTolerance. Retrieved December 1, 2011. 
  99. ^ [2]
  100. ^ Adam Lipak (January 4, 2010). "Group Gives Up Death Penalty Work". New York Times. 
  101. ^ "Innocence: List of Those Freed From Death Row".  
  102. ^ a b Lois Romano, "When DNA Meets Death Row, It's the System That's Tested", Washington Post, December 12, 2003.
  103. ^ Pitkin, James (January 23, 2008). "Killing Time Dead Men Waiting on Oregon's Death Row". Willamette Week. Retrieved March 11, 2011. 
  104. ^ Experts Agree: Death Penalty Not A Deterrent To Violent Crime, January 15, 1997, accessed September 27, 2007
  105. ^ American Justice Volume 1
  106. ^ Londono, O. (2013), A Retributive Critique of Racial Bias and Arbitrariness in Capital Punishment. Journal of Social Philosophy, 44: 95–105. doi:10.1111/josp.12013
  107. ^ "Letter – Cost of the Death Penalty". The New York Times (California). February 28, 2009. Retrieved December 1, 2011. 
  108. ^ "Study: Cost Savings From Repeal Of Death Penalty May Be Elusive". February 25, 2009. Retrieved December 1, 2011. 
  109. ^ "In U.S., 64 percent Support Death Penalty in Cases of Murder".  
  110. ^ "Support for the Death Penalty 30 Years After the Supreme Court Ruling".  
  111. ^ Ed Pilkington in Jackson, Georgia (September 22, 2011). Troy Davis campaigners vow to fight 'inhumane and inflexible' death penalty" by Ed Pilkington""". The Guardian (London). Retrieved December 1, 2011. 
  112. ^ "Juvenile News and Developments – Previous Years". January 3, 2003. Retrieved December 1, 2011. 
  113. ^ "Execution of Juveniles in the U.S. and other Countries". Retrieved December 1, 2011. 
  114. ^ "Death Penalty". Equal Justice Initiative. Retrieved 2013-10-29. 
  115. ^ "Explaining Death Row's Population and Racial Composition," The Journal of Empirical Legal Studies John Blume, Theodore Eisenberg and Martin Wells, March 2004, cited in Cornell Press release
  116. ^ a b "United States of America: Death by discrimination – the continuing role of race in capital cases". 2003-04-23. Retrieved 2012-04-30. 
  117. ^ Death Penalty in Black and White (1999 figures).
  118. ^ Cooper, Alexia (2012). Homicide Trends in the United States, 1980-2008. p. 3.  
  119. ^ "Death Row U.S.A. Fall 2014". 
  120. ^ "Illinois Death Row Inmates Granted Commutation by Governor George Ryan on January 12, 2003". Retrieved December 1, 2011. 
  121. ^ "Suicide on death row", David Lester and Christine Tartaro, Journal of Forensic Sciences, ISSN 0022-1198, 2002, vol. 47, no5, pp. 1108–1111
  122. ^ []
  123. ^ Judge says executions unconstitutional
  124. ^ "Nebraska Supreme Court says electrocution unconstitutional", Omaha World-Herald (online edition), February 8, 2008.
  125. ^ Volentine, Jason (May 28, 2009). "Nebraska Changes Execution Method to Lethal Injection".  
  126. ^ Gramlich, John (October 18, 2007). "Lethal injection moratorium inches closer". Retrieved October 18, 2007. 
  127. ^ Gramlich, John (October 18, 2007). "Lethal injection moratorium inches closer". Retrieved Dexember 23, 2012. 
  128. ^ Musgrave, Beth (November 26, 2009). "Decision halts lethal injections | Latest Local, State News". Retrieved December 1, 2011. 
  129. ^ Jung, Helen (November 22, 2011). "'"Gov. John Kitzhaber stops executions in Oregon, calls system 'compromised and inequitable.  
  130. ^ a b Algar, Clare (22 October 2013). "Big Pharma May Help End The Death Penalty".  
  131. ^ Richmond, Ben (28 October 2013). "Will the EU kill America's Death Penalty?". Motherboard.  
  132. ^ Hobbs v. Jones, 412 S.W.3d 844, 854-55 (Ark. 2012).
  133. ^ Arkansas Court Upends Death Penalty, New York Times, Robbie Brown, June 22, 2012
  134. ^ Wagner, John (March 16, 2013). "Md. General Assembly repeals death penalty". Washington Post. Retrieved 15 March 2013. 
  135. ^ [3], New York Times,Ian Lovett, Executions Are Suspended by Governor in Washington
  136. ^ Oklahoma inmate Tasered by prison staff on day of botched execution The Guardian, 1 May 2014
  137. ^ [4]New York Times, California Death Penalty System Is Unconstitutional, Federal Judge Rules, July16,2014
  138. ^ [5], CNN, Steve Almasy and Ann O'Neill, California's death penalty ruled unconstitutional


See also

On July 16, 2014, Federal Judge Cormac J. Carney of the United States District Court ruled that California's death penalty system is unconstitutional because it is arbitrary and plagued with delay.[137][138]

In May 2014 Oklahoma director of corrections, Robert Patton, recommended an indefinite hold on executions in the state after the botched execution of African-American Clayton Lockett. The prisoner had to be tasered to restrain him prior to the execution and the lethal injection missed a vein in his groin, resulting in Lockett regaining consciousness, trying to get up and to speak, before dying of a heart attack 43 minutes later, after the attempted execution had been called off.[136]

On February 11, 2014, Washington state Governor Jay Inslee announced a capital punishment moratorium. All death penalty cases that come to Inslee will result in him issuing a reprieve, not a pardon or commutation.[135]

On March 15, 2013, the Maryland House of Delegates voted 82-56 to repeal Maryland’s death penalty. It made the state the sixth in six years to abolish capital punishment.[134]

On June 22, 2012, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled that the state's lethal injection law violates the Arkansas Constitution, primarily on technical separation-of-powers grounds.[132][133]

Pharmaceutical companies whose products are used in the three-drug cocktails for lethal injections are predominantly European, and they have strenuously objected to the use of their drugs for executions and taken steps to prevent their use.[130] For example, Hospira, the sole American manufacturer of sodium thiopental, the critical anesthetic in the three-drug cocktail, announced in 2011 that it would no longer manufacture the drug for the American market, in part for ethical reasons and in part because its transfer of sodium thiopental manufacturing to Italy would subject it to the European Union's Torture Regulation, which forbids the use of any product manufactured within the Union for torture (as execution by lethal injection is considered by the Regulation).[131] Since the drug manufacturers began taking these steps and the EU regulation ended the importation of drugs produced in Europe, the resulting shortage of execution drugs has led to or influenced decisions to impose moratoria in Arkansas, California, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, and Tennessee.[130]

In November 2011, Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber announced a moratorium on executions in Oregon, canceling a planned execution and ordering a review of the death penalty system in the state.[129]

On November 25, 2009, the Kentucky Supreme Court placed a moratorium on executions until the state adopts regulations for carrying out the penalty by lethal injection.[128]

After the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear the case Baze v. Rees, many states slowed or halted executions as lawyers for death-row inmates argued that states should not carry out executions using a method that may be ruled unconstitutional. While executions had come to an apparent stop until Baze was examined by the court, this was not the intent, according to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who stated on October 16, 2007 that stopping all executions by that method was not the high court's intention when it agreed to hear Baze. Just because the justices agreed to take on the case, Scalia said, does not necessarily mean that a moratorium should ensue.[126] Justice Scalia's pronouncement was little more than an expression of his personal opinion as dicta made in a dissenting opinion of an unrelated case. As a dissenting opinion it did not, by definition, express the legal opinion of the majority of the court and has no precedential effect.[127]

On February 8, 2008, the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled that the use of the electric chair is unconstitutional—specifically, that its use conflicts with the Nebraska Constitution. As electrocution was the only legally authorized method of execution in Nebraska, the state technically had no legal death penalty[124] until the introduction of lethal injection in May 2009.[125]

In California, United States District Judge Jeremy Fogel imposed a moratorium on the death penalty on December 15, 2006, ruling that the implementation used in California was unconstitutional but that it could be fixed.[123]

In North Carolina, a de facto moratorium is in place following a decision by the state's medical board that physicians cannot participate in executions, which is a requirement under state and federal law.

Democratic Governor Parris N. Glendening halted executions in the state of Maryland by executive order on May 9, 2002, but the subsequent Republican governor, Robert Ehrlich, resumed executions in 2004. On December 19, 2006, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that state executions would be suspended until the manual that spells out the protocol for lethal injections is reviewed by a legislative panel. The state's Department of Corrections had adopted the manual without having a public hearing or submitting it before a committee. Legislative review of the protocol is required before approval under state law.

Since the reinstatement of the death penalty, Kansas and New Hampshire have performed no executions, and four states have only executed volunteers: Pennsylvania has executed three inmates, Oregon two, Connecticut one, and New Mexico one. Therefore, these six states can be regarded as having de facto moratorium. In 2010, bills to abolish the death penalty in Kansas and in South Dakota (which had a de facto moratorium at the time) were rejected. Idaho ended its de facto moratorium, during which only one volunteer had been executed, on November 18, 2011 by executing Paul Ezra Rhoades; South Dakota executed Donald Moeller on October 30, 2012, ending a de facto moratorium during which only two volunteers had been executed. Of the 12 prisoners whom Nevada has executed since 1976, 11 waived their rights to appeal. Kentucky and Montana have executed two prisoners against their will (KY: 1997 and 1999, MT: 1995 and 1998) and one volunteer, respectively (KY: 2008, MT: 2006). Colorado (in 1997) and Wyoming (in 1992) have executed only one prisoner, respectively.

Current moratoria and de facto moratorium

According to the [102]

Exonerations from death row and executions of innocent prisoners

Since the reinstitution of the death penalty, 143 prisoners have waived their appeals and asked that the execution be carried out. Four states (Connecticut, New Mexico, Oregon, and Pennsylvania) have executed only volunteers since the end of the moratorium.[122]

The suicide rate of death row inmates was found by Lester and Tartaro to be 113 per 100,000 for the period 1976–1999. This is about ten times the rate of suicide in the United States as a whole and about six times the rate of suicide in the general U.S. prison population.[121]

Suicide on death row and volunteering for execution

Previous post-Furman mass clemencies took place in 1986 in New Mexico, when Governor Toney Anaya commuted all death sentences because of his personal opposition to the death penalty. In 1991, outgoing Ohio Governor Dick Celeste commuted the sentences of eight prisoners, among them all four women on the state's death row. And during his two terms (1979–1987) as Florida's Governor, Bob Graham, although a strong death penalty supporter who had overseen the first post-Furman involuntary execution as well as 15 others, agreed to commute the sentences of six people on the grounds of "possible innocence" or "disproportionality."

[20].life imprisonment signed legislation abolishing the death penalty in Illinois in March 2011, he commuted the sentences of the fifteen inmates on death row to Pat Quinn When Governor [120] The largest number of clemencies was granted in January 2003 in

Clemency and commutations

All of the executions which have taken place since the 1936 hanging of Bethea in Owensboro have been conducted within a wall or enclosure. For example, Fred Adams was legally hanged in Kennett, Missouri, on April 2, 1937, within a 10-foot (3 m) wooden stockade. Roscoe "Red" Jackson was hanged within a stockade in Galena, Missouri, on May 26, 1937. Two Kentucky hangings were conducted after Galena in which numerous persons were present within a wooden stockade, that of John "Peter" Montjoy in Covington, Kentucky on December 17, 1937, and that of Harold Van Venison in Covington on June 3, 1938. An estimated 400 witnesses were present for the hanging of Lee Simpson in Ryegate, Montana, on December 30, 1939. The execution of Timothy McVeigh on June 11, 2001 was witnessed by some 300 people, some by closed-circuit television.

Today, there are always witnesses to executions, but it is the law, not the number of witnesses present, that determines whether the execution is "public."

Present-day statutes from across the nation use the same words and phrases, requiring modern executions to take place within a wall or enclosure to exclude public view. Connecticut General Statute § 54–100 requires death sentences to be conducted in an "enclosure" which "shall be so constructed as to exclude public view." Kentucky Revised Statute 431.220 and Missouri Revised Statute § 546.730 contain substantially identical language. New Mexico's former death penalty, since repealed, see N.M. Stat. § 31-14-12, required executions be conducted in a "room or place enclosed from public view." Similarly, a dormant Massachusetts law, see Mass. Gen. Law ch. 279 § 60, required executions to take place "within an enclosure or building." North Carolina General Statute § 15-188 requires death sentences to be executed "within the walls" of the penitentiary, as do Oklahoma Statute Title 22 § 1015 and Montana Code § 46-19-103. Ohio Revised Code § 2949.22 requires that "[t]he enclosure shall exclude public view." Similarly, Tennessee Code § 40-23-116 requires "an enclosure" for "strict seclusion and privacy." United States Code Title 18 § 3596 and the Code of Federal Regulations 28 CFR 26.4 limit the witnesses permitted at federal executions.

Around 1890, a political movement developed in the United States to mandate private executions. Several states enacted laws which required executions to be conducted within a "wall" or "enclosure" to "exclude public view." For example, in 1919, the Missouri legislature adopted a statute (L.1919, p. 781) which required, "the sentence of death should be executed within the county jail, if convenient, and otherwise within an enclosure near the jail." The Missouri law permitted the local sheriff to distribute passes to individuals (usually local citizens) who he believed should witness the hanging, but the sheriffs – for various reasons – sometimes denied passes to individuals who wanted to watch. Missouri executions conducted after 1919 were not "public" because they were conducted behind closed walls, and the general public was not permitted to attend.

The last public execution in America was that of Rainey Bethea in Owensboro, Kentucky, on August 14, 1936. It was the last execution in the nation at which the general public was permitted to attend without any legally imposed restrictions. "Public execution" is a legal phrase, defined by the laws of various states, and carried out pursuant to a court order. Similar to "public record" or "public meeting," it means that anyone who wants to attend the execution may do so.

Passers-by abusing the bodies of Union supporters near Knoxville, Tennessee. The two were hanged by Confederate authorities near the railroad tracks so passing train passengers could see them.

Location of executions: public versus private

  • men account for 98.12 percent (2,978) of the persons currently on death row, while women account for 1.88 percent (57).
  • men account for 98.92 percent (1,374) of the persons executed since 1976, while women account for 1.08 percent (15).

As of October 1, 2014:[119]

Among genders

According to the Death Penalty Information Center there were 46 executions in the United States in 2010 and 55 percent of those people were white and 76 percent of the victims were white as well. As of January 1, 2011 there were 3251 people sitting on death row and 44 percent of those people are white.

(Percentage totals exceed 100 percent due to mixed race.)

  • White (216) (46 percent, pop. ~80 percent)
  • Black (172) (37 percent, pop. ~12 percent)
  • Latin (78) (16 percent, pop. ~16 percent)
  • Asian (2) (0.4 percent, pop. ~5 percent)

A summary of executions in Texas since 1982 concludes:

African Americans made up 41 percent of death row inmates while making up only 12 percent of the general population. (They have made up 34 percent of those actually executed since 1976.)[116] However, that number is lower than that of prison inmates, which is 47 percent.[117] According to the US Department of Justice, African Americans accounted for 52.5% of homicide offenders from 1980 to 2008, with whites 45.3% and Native Americans and Asians 2.2%.[118] According to a 2003 Amnesty International report, Blacks and Whites were the victims of murder in almost equal numbers, yet 80 percent of the people executed since 1977 were convicted of murders involving white victims.[116]

Among races

The death penalty is sought and applied more often in some jurisdictions, not only between states but within states. A 2004 Cornell University study showed that while 2.5 percent of murderers convicted nationwide were sentenced to the death penalty, in Nevada 6 percent were given the death penalty.[115] Texas gave 2 percent of murderers a death sentence, less than the national average. Texas, however, executed 40 percent of those sentenced, which was about four times higher than the national average. California had executed only 1 percent of those sentenced.

Among those sentenced

Within the context of the overall murder rate, the death penalty cannot be said to be widely or routinely used in the United States; in recent years the average has been about one execution for about every 700 murders committed, or 1 execution for about every 325 murder convictions. However, 32 of the 50 states still execute people. Among them, Alabama has the highest per capita rate of death sentences. This is due to judges overriding life imprisonment sentences and imposing the death penalty. No other states allow this.[114]

Distribution of sentences

Sixteen was held to be the minimum permissible age in the 1988 Supreme Court decision of Thompson v. Oklahoma. The Court, considering the case Roper v. Simmons in March 2005, found the execution of juvenile offenders unconstitutional by a 5–4 margin, effectively raising the minimum permissible age to 18. State laws have not been updated to conform with this decision. In the American legal system, unconstitutional laws do not need to be repealed; instead, they are held to be unenforceable. (See also List of juvenile offenders executed in the United States)

  • 19 states and the federal government had set a minimum age of 18,
  • 5 states had set a minimum age of 17, and
  • 14 states had explicitly set a minimum age of 16, or were subject to the Supreme Court's imposition of that minimum.

Before 2005, of the 38 U.S. states that allow capital punishment:

Since 1642 (in the electrocuted in South Carolina at the age of 14 on June 16, 1944. The last execution of a juvenile may have been Leonard Shockley, who died in the Maryland gas chamber on April 10, 1959, at the age of 17. No one has been under age 19 at time of execution since at least 1964.[112] Since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, 22 people have been executed for crimes committed under the age of 18. Twenty-one were 17 at the time of the crime. The last person to be executed for a crime committed as a juvenile was Scott Hain on April 3, 2003 in Oklahoma.[113]

Total number of prisoners on Death Row in the United States from 1953 to 2008
Executions in the United States from 1930 to 2009
Executions in the United States from 1608 to 2009

Minimum age

After the September 2011 execution of Troy Davis, believed by many to be innocent, Richard Dieter, the director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said this case was a clear wake-up call to politicians across the United States. He said: "They weren't expecting such passion from people in opposition to the death penalty. There's a widely held perception that all Americans are united in favor of executions, but this message came across loud and clear that many people are not happy with it." Brian Evans of Amnesty International, which led the campaign to spare Davis's life, said that there was a groundswell in America of people "who are tired of a justice system that is inhumane and inflexible and allows executions where there is clear doubts about guilt". He predicted the debate would now be conducted with renewed energy.[111]

As noted in the introduction to this article, the American public has recently maintained its position of support for capital punishment for murder. However, when given a choice between the death penalty and life imprisonment without parole, support has traditionally been significantly lower than polling which has only mentioned the death penalty as a punishment; in the 2010 poll, for instance, the disparity narrowed, with 49 percent favoring the death penalty and 46 percent favoring life imprisonment.[109] The highest level of support recorded overall was 80 percent in 1994 (16 percent opposed), and the lowest recorded was 42 percent in 1966 (47 percent opposed); on the question of the death penalty vs. life without parole, the strongest preference for the death penalty was 61 percent in 1997 (29 percent favoring life), and the lowest preference for the death penalty was 47 percent in 2006 (48 percent favoring life).[110]

Another argument (specific to the United States) in the capital punishment debate is the cost. The convict is more likely to use the whole appeals process if the jury issues a death sentence than if it issues life without parole.[107] But others who contest this argument say that the greater cost of appeals where the prosecution does seek the death penalty is offset by the savings from avoiding trial altogether in cases where the defendant pleads guilty to avoid the death penalty.[108]

Opponents argue that the death penalty is not an effective means of deterring crime,[104] risks the execution of the innocent, is unnecessarily barbaric in nature, cheapens human life, and puts a government on the same base moral level as those criminals involved in murder.[105] Furthermore, some opponents argue that the arbitrariness with which it is administered and the systemic influence of racial, socio-economic, geographic, and gender bias on determinations of desert make the current practice of capital punishment immoral and illegitimate.[106]

Arguments for and against capital punishment are based on moral, practical, and religious grounds. Advocates of the death penalty argue that it deters crime, is a good tool for prosecutors (in plea bargaining for example),[103] improves the community by eliminating recidivism by executed criminals, provides closure to surviving victims or loved ones, and is a just penalty for the crimes it punishes.

In total, 142 prisoners have been either acquitted, or received pardons or commutations on the basis of possible innocence, since 1973.[101] Death penalty opponents often argue that this statistic shows how perilously close states have come to undertaking [102]

In October 2009, the American Law Institute voted to disavow the framework for capital punishment that it had created in 1962, as part of the Model Penal Code, "in light of the current intractable institutional and structural obstacles to ensuring a minimally adequate system for administering capital punishment." A study commissioned by the institute had said that experience had proved that the goal of individualized decisions about who should be executed and the goal of systemic fairness for minorities and others could not be reconciled.[100]

Religious groups are widely split on the issue of capital punishment,.[98] The Fiqh Council of North America, a group of highly influential Muslim scholars in the United States, has issued a fatwa calling for a moratorium on capital punishment in the United States until various preconditions in the legal system are met.[99]

Elections have sometimes turned on the issue; in 1986, three justices were removed from the Supreme Court of California by the electorate (including Chief Justice Rose Bird) partly because of their opposition to the death penalty.

Capital punishment is a controversial issue, with many prominent organizations and individuals participating in the debate. Japan and Singapore have executed prisoners, like the United States, while South Korea currently has a moratorium in effect. In 2011, the United States was the only source of executions (43) in the G8 countries or Western Hemisphere.[97]

The execution of William Kemmler, August 6, 1890


In the 2010s, American jurisdictions have experienced a shortage of lethal injection drugs, due to anti-death penalty advocacy and low production volume. Hospira, the only U.S. manufacturer of sodium thiopental, stopped making the drug in 2011. The European Union has outlawed the export of any product that could be used in an execution; this has prevented executioners from using EU-manufactured anethetics like propofol which are needed for general medical purposes. Another alternative, pentobarbital, is also only manufactured in the European Union, which has caused the Danish producer to restrict distribution to U.S. government customers.[96]

Regardless of the method, an hour or two before the execution, the condemned person is offered religious services and a last meal (except in Texas), the contents of which are often released to the news media . Executions are carried out in private with only invited persons able to view the proceedings; in some cases, journalists have reserved spots, such as in Texas, where The Associated Press is entitled to send a reporter to witness each execution .

Electrocution was the preferred method of execution during the 20th century. Electric chairs have commonly been nicknamed Old Sparky; however, Alabama's electric chair became known as the "Yellow Mama" due to its unique color. Some, particularly in Florida, were noted for malfunctions, which caused discussion of their cruelty and resulted in a shift to lethal injection as the preferred method of execution. Although lethal injection dominates as a method of execution, some states allow prisoners on death row to choose the method used to execute them.

The two states that still allow hanging[93] are New Hampshire, which allows it at the decision of the Corrections officials,[94] and Washington, at the decision of the prisoner.[95]

Method Date State Convict
Electrocution Jan 16, 2013 Virginia Robert Gleason
Firing squad Jun 18, 2010 Utah Ronnie Lee Gardner
Lethal gas Mar 3, 1999 Arizona Walter LaGrand[92]
Hanging Jan 25, 1996 Delaware William Bailey

The use of lethal injection has become standard. The last executions by other methods are as follows:

In 2004, Utah made lethal injection the only form of capital punishment. However, those already on death row were grandfathered on the type of execution they chose at sentencing. At the time of the change in the law there were still three inmates on Utah's death row who had selected firing squad.

The method of execution of federal prisoners for offenses under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 is that of the state in which the conviction took place. If the state has no death penalty, the judge must choose a state with the death penalty for carrying out the execution. For offenses under the Drug Kingpin Act of 1988, the method of execution is lethal injection. The Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana is currently the home of the only death chamber for federal death penalty recipients in the United States, where inmates are put to death by lethal injection. The complex has so far been the only location used for federal executions post-Gregg. Timothy McVeigh and Juan Garza were put to death in June 2001, and Louis Jones, Jr. was put to death on March 18, 2003.

Currently, lethal injection is the method used or allowed in all of the 32 states which allow the death penalty. Nebraska required electrocution, but in 2008 the state's supreme court ruled that the method was unconstitutional. In mid-2009 Nebraska officially changed its method of execution to lethal injection.[88][89][90] Other states also allow electrocution, firing squad, hanging, and lethal gas. From 1976 to August 6, 2014, there were 1,386 executions, of which 1,211 were by lethal injection, 158 by electrocution, 11 by gas chamber, 3 by hanging, and 3 by firing squad.[91]

Until the 21st century, electrocution and gassing were the most prevalent methods of execution in the United States. The electrocutions of Indiana, Frank J. Coppola, Wilbert Lee Evans, and Derick Lynn Peterson in Virginia, and the gassings of Jimmy Lee Gray in Mississippi and Donald Eugene Harding in Arizona are often cited by opponents of capital punishment as unacceptable outcomes of such methods.

The moratorium ended on January 17, 1977 with the shooting of Gary Gilmore by firing squad in Utah. The first use of the electric chair after the moratorium was the electrocution of John Spenkelink in Florida on May 25, 1979. The first use of the gas chamber after the moratorium was the gassing of Jesse Bishop in Nevada on October 22, 1979. The first use of the gallows after the moratorium was the hanging of Westley Allan Dodd in Washington on January 5, 1993. December 7, 1982 is also an important day in the history of capital punishment in the United States; Charles Brooks, Jr., put to death in Texas, was the first person executed by lethal injection.

The last use of the electric chair between the first electrocution on August 6, 1890 and the moratorium was when Oklahoma electrocuted James French on August 10, 1966. The last use of the gas chamber between the first gassing on February 8, 1924 and the moratorium was when Colorado gassed Luis Monge on June 2, 1967.

Various methods have been used in the history of the American colonies and the United States but only five methods are currently used. Historically, burning, crushing, breaking on wheel, and bludgeoning were used for a small number of executions, while hanging was the most common method. The last person burned at the stake was a black slave in South Carolina in August 1825.[86] The last person to be hanged in chains was a murderer named John Marshall in West Virginia on April 4, 1913. Although beheading was a legal method in Utah from 1851 to 1888, it was never used.[87]

Number of executions each year by the method used in the United States and the earlier colonies from 1608 to 2004. The adoption of electrocution caused a marked drop off in the number of hangings, which was used even less with the use of the gas chamber. After Gregg v. Georgia, most states changed to lethal injection, leading to its rise.
Usage of lethal injection for executions in the United States
Color key:
  State uses only this method
  State uses this method primarily but has secondary methods
  State has never used this method
  State once used this method, but no longer does


The United States Supreme Court in Penry v. Lynaugh and the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in Bigby v. Dretke have been clear in their decisions that jury instructions in death penalty cases that do not ask about mitigating factors regarding the defendant's mental health violate the defendant's Eighth Amendment rights, saying that the jury is to be instructed to consider mitigating factors when answering unrelated questions. This ruling suggests that specific explanations to the jury are necessary to weigh mitigating factors.

Mitigating factors

Traditionally, Section 1983 was of limited use for a state prisoner under sentence of death because the Supreme Court has held that habeas corpus, not Section 1983, is the only vehicle by which a state prisoner can challenge his judgment of death.[85] In the 2006 Hill v. McDonough case, however, the United States Supreme Court approved the use of Section 1983 as a vehicle for challenging a state's method of execution as cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The theory is that a prisoner bringing such a challenge is not attacking directly his judgment of death, but rather the means by which that the judgment will be carried out. Therefore, the Supreme Court held in the Hill case that a prisoner can use Section 1983 rather than habeas corpus to bring the lawsuit. Yet, as Clarence Hill's own case shows, lower federal courts have often refused to hear suits challenging methods of execution on the ground that the prisoner brought the claim too late and only for the purposes of delay. Further, the Court's decision in Baze v. Rees, upholding a lethal injection method used by many states, has drastically narrowed the opportunity for relief through Section 1983.

Under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, a state prisoner is ordinarily only allowed one suit for habeas corpus in federal court. If the federal courts refuse to issue a writ of habeas corpus, an execution date may be set. In recent times, however, prisoners have postponed execution through a final round of federal litigation using the Civil Rights Act of 1871 — codified at 42 U.S.C. § 1983 — which allows people to bring lawsuits against state actors to protect their federal constitutional and statutory rights.

Section 1983 contested

A similar process is available for prisoners sentenced to death by the judgment of a federal court.[84]

James Liebman, a professor of law at Columbia Law School, stated in 1996 that his study found that when habeas corpus petitions in death penalty cases were traced from conviction to completion of the case that there was "a 40 percent success rate in all capital cases from 1978 to 1995."[82] Similarly, a study by Ronald Tabak in a law review article puts the success rate in habeas corpus cases involving death row inmates even higher, finding that between "1976 and 1991, approximately 47 percent of the habeas petitions filed by death row inmates were granted."[83] The different numbers are largely definitional, rather than substantive. Freedam's statistics looks at the percentage of all death penalty cases reversed, while the others look only at cases not reversed prior to habeas corpus review.

Review through federal habeas corpus is narrow in theory, but it is important in practice. According to Eric Freedman, 21 percent of death penalty cases are reversed through federal habeas corpus.[80]

After a death sentence is affirmed in state collateral review, the prisoner may file for federal habeas corpus, which is a unique type of lawsuit that can be brought in federal courts. Federal habeas corpus is a species of collateral review, and it is the only way that state prisoners may attack a death sentence in federal court (other than petitions for certiorari to the United States Supreme Court after both direct review and state collateral review). The scope of federal habeas corpus is governed by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which restricted significantly its previous scope. The purpose of federal habeas corpus is to ensure that state courts, through the process of direct review and state collateral review, have done at least a reasonable job in protecting the prisoner's federal constitutional rights. Prisoners may also use federal habeas corpus suits to bring forth new evidence that they are innocent of the crime, though to be a valid defense at this late stage in the process, evidence of innocence must be truly compelling.[81]

Federal habeas corpus

At times when a death sentence is affirmed on direct review, it is considered final. Yet, supplemental methods to attack the judgment, though less familiar than a typical appeal, do remain. These supplemental remedies are considered collateral review, that is, an avenue for upsetting judgments that have become otherwise final.[77] Where the prisoner received his death sentence in a state-level trial, as is usually the case, the first step in collateral review is state collateral review. (If the case is a federal death penalty case, it proceeds immediately from direct review to federal habeas corpus.) Although all states have some type of collateral review, the process varies widely from state to state.[78] Generally, the purpose of these collateral proceedings is to permit the prisoner to challenge his sentence on grounds that could not have been raised reasonably at trial or on direct review.[79] Most often these are claims, such as ineffective assistance of counsel, which require the court to consider new evidence outside the original trial record, something courts may not do in an ordinary appeal. State collateral review, though an important step in that it helps define the scope of subsequent review through federal habeas corpus, is rarely successful in and of itself. Only around 6 percent of death sentences are overturned on state collateral review.[80] In 2010, the death sentences of 53 inmates were overturned as a result of legal appeals or high court reversals.[72]

State collateral review

If a defendant is sentenced to death at the trial level, the case then goes into a direct review.[73] The direct review process is a typical legal appeal. An appellate court examines the record of evidence presented in the trial court and the law that the lower court applied and decides whether the decision was legally sound or not.[74] Direct review of a capital sentencing hearing will result in one of three outcomes. If the appellate court finds that no significant legal errors occurred in the capital sentencing hearing, the appellate court will affirm the judgment, or let the sentence stand.[73] If the appellate court finds that significant legal errors did occur, then it will reverse the judgment, or nullify the sentence and order a new capital sentencing hearing.[75] Lastly, if the appellate court finds that no reasonable juror could find the defendant eligible for the death penalty, a rarity, then it will order the defendant acquitted, or not guilty, of the crime for which he/she was given the death penalty, and order him sentenced to the next most severe punishment for which the offense is eligible.[75] About 60 percent survive the process of direct review intact.[76]

Direct review

The legal administration of the death penalty in the United States is complex. Typically, it involves four critical steps: (1) sentencing, (2) direct review, (3) state collateral review, and (4) federal habeas corpus. Recently, a narrow and final fifth level of process – (5) the Section 1983 challenge – has become increasingly important.[70] (Clemency or pardon, through which the Governor or President of the jurisdiction can unilaterally reduce or abrogate a death sentence, is an executive rather than judicial process.[71]) The number of new death sentences handed down peaked in 1995–1996 (309). There were 104 new death sentences handed down in 2010, the lowest number since 1973 (44).[72]

Legal process

Crime Convict Date Location Jurisdiction
Aiding a runaway slave Starling Carlton 1859 South Carolina State
Arson George Hughes, George Smith, and Asbury Hughes[59] Aug 1, 1884 Alabama State
Burglary Frank Bass[60][61] Aug 8, 1941 Alabama State
Assault by a life convict Rudolph Wright[62] Jan 11, 1962 California State
Concealing the birth/death of an infant Hannah Piggen 1785 Massachusetts State
Conspiracy to Commit Murder Five unnamed Yuki men Jul 21, 1863 California[63] State
Counterfeiting Thomas Davis[64] Oct 11, 1822 Alabama State
Desertion Eddie Slovik Jan 31, 1945 Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines, France (Firing squad).[65] Federal (United States Army)
Espionage Ethel and Julius Rosenberg Jun 19, 1953 New York Federal
Forgery Unknown defendant Mar 6, 1840 South Carolina State
Horse stealing (Grand Larceny) Theodore Velenquez Jan 30, 1852 California[66] State
Kidnapping Billy Monk[67] Nov 21, 1960 California State
Piracy (Slave Trading) Nathaniel Gordon Feb 21, 1862 New York Federal
Rape Ronald Wolfe[68] May 8, 1964 Missouri State
Robbery James Coburn Sep 4, 1964 Alabama State
Slave revolt Caesar, Sam, and Sanford (slaves) Oct 19, 1860 Alabama State
Theft Jake (slave) Dec 3, 1855 Alabama State
Train Robbery Black Jack Ketchum Apr 26, 1901 New Mexico Federal (New Mexico Territory)
Treason John Conn 1862 Texas Confederate
Sodomy/buggery/bestiality Joseph Ross Dec 20, 1785 Pennsylvania State
Witchcraft Manuel[69] Jun 15, 1779 Illinois Country (present-day Illinois) Territorial
The last executions solely for crimes other than homicide:

Congress acted defiantly toward the Supreme Court by passing the Drug Kingpin Act of 1988 and the Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994 that made roughly fifty crimes punishable by death, including crimes that do not always involve the death of someone. Such non-death capital offenses include treason, espionage (spying for another country), and high-level drug trafficking. Since no one has yet been sentenced to death for such non-death capital offenses, the Supreme Court has not ruled on their constitutionality.[57][58]

Several people who were executed have received posthumous pardons for their crimes. For example, slave revolt was a capital crime, and many who were executed for that reason have since been posthumously pardoned.

As of November 2008, there is only one person on death row facing capital punishment who has not been convicted of murder. Demarcus Sears remains under a death sentence in Georgia for the crime of "kidnapping with bodily injury." Sears was convicted in 1986 for the kidnapping and bodily injury of victim Gloria Ann Wilbur. Wilbur was kidnapped and beaten in Georgia, raped in Tennessee, and murdered in Kentucky. Sears was never charged with the murder of Wilbur in Kentucky, but was sentenced to death by a jury in Georgia for "kidnapping with bodily injury."[55][56]

On June 25, 2008, in Kennedy v. Louisiana, the Supreme Court ruled against Louisiana's death penalty for child rapists, saying "there is a distinction between intentional first-degree murder on the one hand and nonhomicide crimes against individual persons."[53] The Court went further, ruling out the death penalty for any crime against an individual (as opposed to "offenses against the state," such as treason or espionage) "where the victim's life was not taken."[54]

[52][51] Before

Additionally, the Uniform Code of Military Justice allows capital punishment for a list of offenses committed during wartime, including desertion, mutiny, spying, assault upon a commanding officer, and misconduct before the enemy. In practice, no one has been executed for a crime other than murder or conspiracy to murder since James Coburn was executed for robbery in Alabama on September 4, 1964.[49]

Other capital crimes include: the use of a drug trafficking resulting in a person's death in Florida;[46] train wrecking which leads to a person's death, and perjury which leads to a person's death in California, Colorado, Idaho and Nebraska.[44][47][48]


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