Death Penalty

Death Penalty in the United States

In 2012, the death penalty was alive – if not well – in 33 states. In 2015, eight­een states have ab­ol­ished the capital pen­alty, but a num­ber of oth­ers have in place de facto morator­i­ums. Six states —Texas, Vir­gin­ia, Ok­lahoma, Flor­ida, Mis­souri, and Alabama— have ac­coun­ted for about two-thirds of all ex­e­cu­tions since 1972.

In November 2012, a pro­pos­i­tion to end the capital pen­alty in Cali­for­nia was de­feated at the polls, with 52 per­cent of voters turn­ing it down.

The sys­tem of ad­min­is­ter­ing the death pen­alty in Amer­ica is un­der­go­ing re­newed scru­tiny. In April 2015, the botched, pro­longed ex­e­cu­tion of Clayton Lock­ett made in­ter­na­tion­al head­lines and promp­ted the state to re­view its ex­e­cu­tion pro­ced­ures.

A num­ber of act­ive death-pen­alty states have found it in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult to se­cure the leth­al-in­jec­tion drugs ne­ces­sary to carry out death sen­tences amid boy­cotts from European drug man­u­fac­tures and reti­cence from li­censed phys­i­cians.

Uncompleted Executions in 2017

A Houston Chronicle story, titled “71 percent of scheduled executions not carried out in 2017,” offers some United States execution data:

“Nearly three out of four death dates scheduled nationwide in 2017 were cancelled, after courts and governors intervened in 58 executions across the country. That’s one of the striking takeaways from a pair of end-of-year reports that offer sweeping overviews of capital punishment in 2017.

The broader trends offer no surprises: executions are down, but Texas is still the nation’s killingest state. Nearly a third of the year’s 23 executions took place in Texas….

“The process is better than it was a decade ago,” said Robert Dunham of DPIC. “And there were some potentially wrongful executions that resulted in stays this year that would have resulted in executions a decade ago, but there are still significant and troubling failures.”

Ohio and Texas both contributed significantly to the number of cancelled executions, Dunham said. The Lone Star state saw nine prisoners’ execution dates called off this year, many due to claims of false or misleading testimony or forensic evidence. San Antonio death row inmate Juan Castillo had three dates called off, including one delayed due to Hurricane Harvey and another cancelled in light of claims that his conviction was based on false testimony.”

Similarly, a NBC News article, headlined “Why Texas, death penalty capital of the world, stopped executing people,” examines the use of capital punishment in the State, with this key content:

“Since the Supreme Court legalized capital punishment in 1976, Harris County, Texas, has executed 126 people. That’s more executions than every individual state in the union, barring Texas itself. Harris County’s executions account for 23 percent of the 545 people Texas has executed. On the national level, the state alone is responsible for more than a third of the 1,465 people put to death in the United States since 1976.

In 2017, however, the county known as the “death penalty capital of the world” and the “buckle of the American death belt” executed and sentenced to death an astonishing number of people: zero. This is the first time since 1985 that Harris County did not execute any of its death row inmates, and the third year in a row it did not sentence anyone to capital punishment either.

The remarkable statistic reflects a shift the nation is seeing as a whole. The number of executions has been trending downward across the United States, but it’s particularly noticeable in Texas and Harris County.

“The practices that the Harris County District Attorney’s Office is following are also significant because they reflect the growing movement in the United States toward reform prosecutors who have pledged to use the death penalty more sparingly if at all,” said Robert Dunham, the director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

The city of Houston lies within the confines of Harris County, making it one of the most populous counties in the country — and recently it became one of the most diverse, with a 2012 Rice University report concluded that Houston has become the most diverse city in the country. Under these new conditions, Kim Ogg ran in 2016 to become the county’s district attorney as a reformist candidate who pledged to use the death penalty in a more judicious manner than her predecessors, though the longtime prosecutor didn’t say she would abandon it altogether. Rather, Ogg said she would save it for the “worst of the worst” — such as serial killer Anthony Shore, who was rescheduled for execution next month.

But this year, Ogg appears to have held true to her promise of only pursuing the death penalty in what she deems the most extreme cases. It represents a break from a long pattern of Harris County prosecutors who pushed for the death penalty in nearly all capital cases. “The overall idea of what makes us safer is changing,” Ogg said. “We’re reframing the issues. It’s no longer the number of convictions or scalps on the wall. It’s making sure the punishment meets the crime….”

But Ogg said she cannot alone take credit for the recent drop in executions. The trend precedes her slightly and can also be connected to better educated and more diverse jury pools, as well as Texas’ new sentencing option of life without parole. The state also has a more skilled group of indigent defense lawyers who build up mitigating circumstances — such as an abusive childhood or mental illness — for an alleged murderer’s crime.

Even a state like Texas might stop sentencing alleged killers to death in the near future. And that trend could well extend nationwide. “We’ve seen a deepening decline in the death penalty since the year 2000, and some states fell faster than others,” said University of Virginia law professor Brandon Garrett, who wrote “End of Its Rope: How Killing the Death Penalty Can Revive Criminal Justice.” He added that the declines are steepest in counties that had sentenced the most people to death.”

On the same subject, the Death Penalty Information Center produced a document titled “U.S. Sees Second Fewest Death Sentences and Executions in 25 Years,” and this is an abstract from the press report:

“Executions and death sentences remained near historically low levels in 2017, as public support for the death penalty fell to its lowest level in 45 years, according to a report released today by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC). Eight states carried out 23 executions, half the number of seven years ago, and the second lowest total since 1991. Only the 20 executions in 2016 were lower. Fourteen states and the federal government are projected to impose 39 new death sentences in 2017, the second lowest annual total since the U.S. Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional in 1972. It was the seventh year in a row that fewer than 100 death sentences were imposed nationwide.

“Perhaps more than any place else, the changes in Harris County, Texas are symbolic of the long-term change in capital punishment in the United States. For the first time since 1974, the county that has carried out more executions than any other did not execute any prisoner or sentence any defendant to death,” said Robert Dunham, DPIC’s Executive Director.

“Across the political spectrum, more people are coming to the view that there are better ways to keep us safe than executing a handful of offenders selected from a random death-penalty lottery. There will be times when numbers fluctuate — particularly following historic highs or lows – but the steady long-term decline in the death penalty since the 1990s suggests that in most of the country, the death penalty is becoming obsolete,” Dunham said. DPIC provides information and analysis and tracks data on the death penalty, but does not take a position for or against capital punishment.

The new death sentences imposed in 2017 highlight the increasing geographic isolation and arbitrary nature of the death penalty, Dunham said. “By themselves, three outlier counties — Riverside, CA; Clark, NV; and Maricopa, AZ — were responsible for more than 30% of all the death sentences imposed nationwide. The other 3,140 counties and parishes imposed fewer new death sentences than even last year’s record low.” Riverside imposed five death sentences in 2017, Clark four, and Maricopa three, and no other county imposed as many as two. It was the second time in three years that Riverside sentenced more people to death than any other county.

States scheduled 81 executions in 2017, but 58 of them — more than 70 percent — were never carried out. Nearly 75 percent of executions took place in four states: Texas (7); Arkansas (4); Florida (3); and Alabama (3). But Texas’s state courts stayed seven other executions using new laws to permit those prisoners to obtain judicial review of false or misleading evidence, and its execution total tied 2016 for the fewest conducted by the state since 1996.”

History of Capital Punishment

See about the capital penalty history in California here.

Capital Punishment in California

See about the California’s Death Penalty system here.

Death Penalty in relation to Crime and Race

Death Penalty is included in the Encyclopedia of Race and Crime, beginning with: Anthony Porter spent 15 years on death row in Illinois for a crime he did not commit. Porter came within 2 days of execution; his IQ was 51. It was not until a group of journalism students investigated his case that Porter was exonerated, after another man confessed to the double murder that put Porter on death row. Porter’s exoneration spurred Illinois Governor George Ryan to declare the nation’s first statewide moratorium on executions. Since 1977, Illinois had freed more prisoners than it had executed. Just before Ryan left office, he commuted the state’s 167 death sentences to life sentences because he felt the death penalty could not be administered fairly. The Illinois example is illustrative of the many problems that plague the death penalty in the United States. Race permeates all aspects of the U.S. capital punishment system. [1]

Public Opinion on Death Penalty in relation to Crime and Race

Public Opinion on Death Penalty is included in the Encyclopedia of Race and Crime [2], beginning with: The death penalty has long been an issue that divides Americans along racial lines. Since the American Institute of Public Opinion (the producer of the Gallup polls) first began systematically recording death penalty opinion in 1936, racial differences in opinion have been evident. Indeed, during the first half-century of Gallup death penalty opinion polling, between 1936 and 1986, racial differences in death penalty opinion were greater than any other demographic characteristic, and that remains the case in most years since 1986. In the 38 Gallup polls with data on race that have been conducted between 1936 and 2006, the percentage of Whites who have favored the death penalty has always exceeded the percentage of Blacks who have favored it; and the percentage of Blacks who have opposed the death penalty has always exceeded the percentage of Whites who have opposed it.

The Death Penalty

Leading Case Law

Among the main judicial decisions on this topic:

Coker v. Georgia

Information about this important court opinion is available in this American legal Encyclopedia.

Death Penalty in the Criminal Justice System

This section covers the topics below related with Death Penalty :


Capital Punishment in relation with Death Penalty


Sentencing and Sanctions

Death Penalty


Notes and References

  1. Entry about Death Penalty in the Encyclopedia of Race and Crime
  2. Id.

See Also

  • Corrections
  • Capital Punishment
  • Courts
  • Sentencing and Sanctions
  • Death Penalty
  • Criminal Law
  • Criminal Procedure

Death Penalty: Open and Free Legal Research of US Law

Federal Primary Materials

The U.S. federal government system consists of executive, legislative, and judicial branches, each of which creates information that can be the subject of legal research about Death Penalty. This part provides references, in relation to Death Penalty, to the legislative process, the federal judiciary, and the primary sources of federal law (cases, statutes, and regulations).

Federal primary materials about Death Penalty by content types:

Laws and Regulations

US Constitution
Federal Statutory Codes and Legislation

Federal Case Law and Court Materials

U.S. Courts of Appeals
United States courts of appeals, inclouding bankruptcy courts and bankcruptcy appellate panels:

Federal Administrative Materials and Resources

Presidential Materials

Materials that emanate from the President’s lawmaking function include executive orders for officers in departments and agencies and proclamations for announcing ceremonial or commemorative policies. Presidential materials available include:

Executive Materials

Federal Legislative History Materials

Legislative history traces the legislative process of a particular bill (about Death Penalty and other subjects) for the main purpose of determining the legislators’ intent behind the enactment of a law to explain or clarify ambiguities in the language or the perceived meaning of that law (about Death Penalty or other topics), or locating the current status of a bill and monitoring its progress.

State Administrative Materials and Resources

State regulations are rules and procedures promulgated by state agencies (which may apply to Death Penalty and other topics); they are a binding source of law. In addition to promulgating regulations, state administrative boards and agencies often have judicial or quasi-judicial authority and may issue administrative decisions affecting Death Penalty. Finding these decisions can be challenging. In many cases, researchers about Death Penalty should check state agency web sites for their regulations, decisions, forms, and other information of interest.

State rules and regulations are found in codes of regulations and administrative codes (official compilation of all rules and regulations, organized by subject matter). Search here:

State opinions of the Attorney General (official written advisory opinions on issues of state law related to Death Penalty when formerly requested by a designated government officer):

Tools and Forms

Law in Other Regions

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