Capital punishment in the United States
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In the United States, capital punishment—also called the death penalty—is a legal sentence in 31 states 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 English common law, and it was enforced in all of the American colonies prior to the Declaration of Independence. The methods of execution and the crimes subject to the death penalty vary by state and have changed over time. The most common method since 1976 has been lethal injection. Since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976, thirty-four states have performed executions.
In 2014, 35 inmates were executed in the United States, and 3,002 were on death row. States such as Texas, Oklahoma, Florida, Missouri, Ohio, Virginia, Georgia, and Arizona execute convicted murderers with relative frequency. Texas has performed the most executions by far, and Oklahoma has had (through mid-2011) the highest per capita execution rate. Alabama has the highest per capita rate of prisoners on death row in the US. However, a number of states have abolished the death penalty, most recently Nebraska in May 2015.
- 1 History
- 2 New concerns post-Furman
- 3 Legal process
- 4 Methods
- 5 Debate
- 6 Minimum age
- 7 Distribution of sentences
- 8 Public versus private executions
- 9 Clemency and commutations
- 10 Suicide on death row and volunteering for execution
- 11 Current moratoria and de facto moratoria
- 12 See also
- 13 References
- 14 Further reading
- 15 External links
The first recorded death sentence in the British North American colonies was carried out in 1608 on Captain George Kendall, who was executed by firing squad at the Jamestown colony for allegedly spying for the Spanish government.
The Espy file, 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. Additionally, the United States Army executed 135 soldiers between 1916 and 1955 (the most recent).
The largest single execution in United States history was the hanging of 38 American Indians convicted of murder and rape during the 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. 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.
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. Attempts to change the provision have failed. In 2004, a constitutional amendment proposed to allow capital punishment in some circumstances failed to make it on the November ballot after a resolution failed in the legislature and a public initiative failed to gather enough signatures.
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 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 19 states currently do not have an enforceable death penalty statute:
|New York||2007 2|
|New Mexico||2009 3|
- Vermont retains capital punishment for treason.
- In these states, the death penalty statute was struck down by court ruling.
- In these states, the death penalty is enforceable for offenses committed before the repeal; that is, abolition was not retroactive.
- Connecticut abolished capital punishment for future offenses in 2012, but allowed the sentences of those on death row to remain in place. The Connecticut Supreme Court abolished capital punishment entirely in 2015.
In 2007, New Jersey became the first state to repeal the death penalty during the modern era of capital punishment, followed by New York in the same year, New Mexico in 2009, Illinois in 2011, Connecticut in 2012, Maryland in 2013, and Nebraska in 2015.
In New Jersey and Illinois, all death row inmates had their sentences commuted to life in prison without parole when the death penalty repeal bills were signed into law. In Maryland, Governor Martin O'Malley commuted the state's four remaining death sentences to life in prison without parole in January 2015. While the bill repealing capital punishment in Connecticut was not retroactive, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled in 2015 in State v. Santiago that the legislature's decision to prospectively abolish capital punishment rendered it an offense to "evolving standards of decency," thus commuting the sentences of the 11 men remaining on death row to life in prison without parole. New Mexico may yet execute two condemned inmates sentenced prior to abolition, and Nebraska has ten death row inmates who may still be executed despite abolition.
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, and attempts to restore the death penalty were unsuccessful. Kansas successfully appealed State v. Kleypas, the Kansas Supreme Court decision that declared the state's death penalty statute unconstitutional, to the United States Supreme Court. Nebraska's death penalty statute was rendered ineffective on February 8, 2008 when the required method, electrocution, was ruled unconstitutional by the Nebraska Supreme Court. In 2009, Nebraska enacted a bill that changed its method of execution to lethal injection.
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.
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.
Suspension by the Supreme Court (1972–1976)
Capital punishment was suspended in the United States from 1972 through 1976 primarily as a result of the Supreme Court's decision in Furman v. Georgia. 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 Supreme Court considered a group of consolidated cases. The lead case involved an individual convicted under Georgia's death penalty statute, which featured a "unitary trial" procedure in which the jury was asked to return a verdict of guilt or innocence and, simultaneously, determine whether the defendant would be punished by death or life imprisonment.
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 and Roberts v. Louisiana, 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 (1976)
|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.
In 1976, contemporaneously with Woodson and Roberts, the Court decided Gregg v. Georgia 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.
In 1977, the Supreme Court's Coker v. Georgia decision barred the death penalty for rape of an adult woman, and implied that the death penalty was inappropriate for any offense against another person other than murder. Prior to the decision, the death penalty for rape of an adult had been gradually phased out in the United States, and at the time of the decision, the State of Georgia and the U.S. Federal government were the only two jurisdictions to still retain the death penalty for that offense. However, three states maintained the death penalty for child rape, as the Coker decision only imposed a ban on executions for the rape of an adult woman. In 2008, the 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, 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.
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 picked up, reaching a peak in 1999 and then declining gradually over the following 15 years. Since the death penalty was reauthorized in 1976, 1,411 people have been executed, almost exclusively by the states, with most occurring after 1990. Texas has accounted for over one-third of modern executions (although no death sentences were imposed in Texas during the first half of 2015, with the courts preferring to issue sentences of life without parole instead) 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.
New concerns post-Furman
In the decades since Furman, new questions have emerged about whether or not prosecutorial arbitrariness has replaced sentencing arbitrariness. A study by Pepperdine University School of Law published in Temple Law Review, "Unpredictable Doom and Lethal Injustice: An Argument for Greater Transparency in Death Penalty Decisions," surveyed the decision-making process among prosecutors in various states. The authors found that prosecutors' capital punishment filing decisions remain marked by local "idiosyncrasies," suggesting they are not in keeping with the spirit of the Supreme Court's directive. This means that "the very types of unfairness that the Supreme Court sought to eliminate" may still "infect capital cases." Wide prosecutorial discretion remains because of overly broad criteria. California law, for example, has 22 "special circumstances," making nearly all premeditated murders potential capital cases. The 32 death penalty states have varying numbers and types of "death qualifiers" – circumstances that allow for capital charges. The number varies from a high of 34 in California to 22 in Colorado and Delaware to 12 in Texas, Nebraska, Georgia and Montana. The study's authors call for reform of state procedures along the lines of reforms in the federal system, which the U.S. Department of Justice initiated with a 1995 protocol. Crimes subject to the death penalty vary by jurisdiction. All jurisdictions that use capital punishment designate the highest grade of murder a capital crime, although most jurisdictions require aggravating circumstances. Treason against the United States, as well as treason against the states of Arkansas, California, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Missouri are capital offenses.
Other capital crimes include: the use of a weapon of mass destruction resulting in death, espionage, terrorism, certain violations of the Geneva Conventions that result in the death of one or more persons, and treason at the federal level; aggravated rape in Louisiana, Florida, and Oklahoma; extortionate kidnapping in Oklahoma; aggravated kidnapping in Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky and South Carolina; aircraft hijacking in Alabama and Mississippi; assault by an escaping capital felon in Colorado; armed robbery in Georgia; drug trafficking resulting in a person's death in Florida; train wrecking which leads to a person's death, and perjury which leads to a person's death in California, Colorado, Idaho and Nebraska.
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.
Before 1972, among other crimes, kidnapping was capital in 35 states, treason in 26, train wrecking in 15, bomb setting in seven, arson and burglary in four, armed robbery in five and assault by a life convict in two; in addition, some capital statutes were peculiar to a state such as the statute allowing the issuing of a death sentence for grave desecration (Georgia), forcing a woman to marry (Arkansas), or possession and use of a machine gun for a crime of violence (Virginia).
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." 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."
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."
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.
The last executions solely for crimes other than homicide:
|Aiding a runaway slave||Starling Carlton||1859||South Carolina||State|
|Arson||George Hughes, George Smith, and Asbury Hughes||Aug 1, 1884||Alabama||State|
|Burglary||Frank Bass||Aug 8, 1941||Alabama||State|
|Assault by a life convict||Rudolph Wright||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||State|
|Counterfeiting||Thomas Davis||Oct 11, 1822||Alabama||State|
|Desertion||Eddie Slovik||Jan 31, 1945||Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines, France (Firing squad).||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||State|
|Kidnapping||Billy Monk||Nov 21, 1960||California||State|
|Piracy (Slave Trading)||Nathaniel Gordon||Feb 21, 1862||New York||Federal|
|Rape||Ronald Wolfe||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)|
|Sodomy/buggery/bestiality||Joseph Ross||Dec 20, 1785||Pennsylvania||State|
|Witchcraft||Manuel||Jun 15, 1779||Illinois Country (present-day Illinois)||Territorial|
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. (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.) The number of new death sentences handed down peaked in 1995–1996 (309). There were 73 new death sentences handed down in 2014, the lowest number since 1973 (44).
If a defendant is sentenced to death at the trial level, the case then goes into a direct review. 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. 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. 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. 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. About 60 percent survive the process of direct review intact.
State collateral review
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. 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. 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. 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. In 2010, the death sentences of 53 inmates were overturned as a result of legal appeals or high court reversals.
Federal habeas corpus
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.
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.
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." 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." 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.
A similar process is available for prisoners sentenced to death by the judgment of a federal court.
Section 1983 contested
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.
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. 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.
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.
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. 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.
The last use of the firing squad between 1608 and the moratorium on judicial executions between 1967 and 1977 was when Utah shot James W. Rodgers on March 30, 1960. The last use of the gallows between 1608 and the moratorium was when Kansas hanged George York on June 22, 1965. 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.
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. The first use of lethal injection was on December 7, 1982, when Charles Brooks, Jr., was executed in Texas.
Until the 21st century, electrocution and gassing were the most prevalent methods of execution in the United States.
Currently, lethal injection is the method used or allowed in all of the 31 states that have the death penalty. Some states also allow electrocution, firing squad, hanging, and lethal gas. From 1976 to June 18, 2015, there were 1,411 executions, of which 1,236 were by lethal injection, 158 by electrocution, 11 by gas chamber, 3 by hanging, and 3 by 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.
The use of lethal injection has become standard. The last executions by other methods are as follows:
|Electrocution||January 16, 2013||Virginia||Robert Gleason|
|Firing squad||June 18, 2010||Utah||Ronnie Lee Gardner|
|Lethal gas||March 3, 1999||Arizona||Walter LaGrand|
|Hanging||January 25, 1996||Delaware||William Bailey|
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. In 2015, Utah restored the firing squad as the backup execution method in the event the drugs for lethal injection are not available.
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.
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). 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.
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 anesthetics 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.
Capital punishment is a controversial issue, with many prominent organizations and individuals participating in the debate. Amnesty International and some religions oppose capital punishment on moral grounds, while the Innocence Project works to free wrongly convicted prisoners, including death row inmates, based on newly available DNA tests. Other groups, such as some law enforcement organizations, and some victims' rights groups support capital punishment.
The United States is one of only five industrialized democracies that still practice capital punishment. From the others, Japan, Singapore, and Taiwan have executed prisoners, 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.
Religious groups are widely split on the issue of capital punishment. 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.
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.
In total, 142 prisoners have been either acquitted, or received pardons or commutations on the basis of possible innocence, since 1973. Death penalty opponents often argue that this statistic shows how perilously close states have come to undertaking wrongful executions; proponents point out that the statistic refers only to those exonerated in law, and that the truly innocent may be a smaller number. Statistics likely understate the actual problem of wrongful convictions because once an execution has occurred there is often insufficient motivation and finance to keep a case open, and it becomes unlikely at that point that the miscarriage of justice will ever be exposed.
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), 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.
Opponents argue that the death penalty is not an effective means of deterring crime, 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. 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.
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. 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.
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. 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).
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.
Since 1642 (in the 13 colonies, the United States under the Articles of Confederation, and the current United States) an estimated 364 juvenile offenders have been put to death by the states and the federal government. The earliest known execution of a prisoner for crimes committed as a juvenile was Thomas Graunger in 1642. Twenty-two of the executions occurred after 1976, in seven states. Due to the slow process of appeals, it was highly unusual for a condemned person to be under 18 at the time of execution. The youngest person to be executed in the 20th century was George Stinney, who was 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. 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.
Before 2005, of the 38 U.S. states that allow capital punishment:
- 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.
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)
Distribution of sentences
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.
Among those sentenced
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. 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.
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.) However, that number is lower than that of prison inmates, which is 47 percent. 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%. This means African Americans are less likely to be executed on a per capita basis. However, 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.
As of October 1, 2014:
- 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).
Public versus private executions
The last public execution in the U.S. 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.
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) whom 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.
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.
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."
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.
Clemency and commutations
The largest number of clemencies was granted in January 2003 in Illinois when outgoing Governor George Ryan, who had already imposed a moratorium on executions, pardoned four death-row inmates and commuted the sentences of the remaining 167 to life in prison without the possibility of parole. When Governor Pat Quinn signed legislation abolishing the death penalty in Illinois in March 2011, he commuted the sentences of the fifteen inmates on death row to life imprisonment.
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."
Suicide on death row and volunteering for execution
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.
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.
Current moratoria and de facto moratoria
In addition to the states that have no death penalty, the following states and jurisdictions have imposed moratoria or have de facto moratoria (for at least 5 years, no executions or only executions of "volunteers") in place as of 2015:
|State / Jurisdiction||Status||Moratorium status|
|(Federal)||(de facto)||(Since 2004, issues with lethal injection have delayed any executions; status unclear)|
|(U.S. military)||(de facto)||(No executions since 1976)|
|Arizona||by Attorney General||In 2014, Attorney General set a moratorium while investigating a botched execution|
|Arkansas||de facto||In 2012, supreme court ruled current law unconstitutional, possibly fixed in 2015|
|California||de facto||In 2006 & 2014, court ruled current process unconstitutional; new protocol in development|
|Colorado||by Governor||In 2013, Governor indefinitely stayed executions due to unfairness of system|
|Indiana||de facto||Last execution took place in 2009|
|Kansas||de facto||No executions since 1976|
|Kentucky||de facto||In 2009, supreme court set a moratorium pending a new protocol; in development|
|Louisiana||de facto||Last execution took place in 2010|
|Montana||de facto||In 2012, protocol found unconstitutional; new 2013 protocol being challenged|
|Nevada||de facto||All executions halted due to lethal injection problems|
|New Hampshire||de facto||No executions since 1976|
|North Carolina||de facto||State medical board refused to let physicians participate, concerns about process|
|Ohio||de facto||All executions delayed until 2017 due to lack of lethal injection drugs|
|Oklahoma||by implementers||In 2014, state Dept. of Corrections recommended a moratorium after a botched execution|
|Oregon||by Governor||In 2011, Governor announced a moratorium and a review|
|Pennsylvania||by Governor||In 2015, Governor announced a moratorium pending review|
|Tennessee||de facto||Last execution took place in 2009|
|Washington||by Governor||In 2014, Governor announced a moratorium and reprieve for new cases|
|Wyoming||de facto||Last execution took place in 1992|
Since the reinstatement of the death penalty, Kansas, New Hampshire, and the United States military 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 seven jurisdictions can be regarded as having de facto moratoria.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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). 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, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, North Carolina, and Tennessee.
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.
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. In 2015, the state approved nitrogen asphyxiation as a method of execution.
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.
On February 13, 2015, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf announced a moratorium on the death penalty. Wolf will issue a reprieve for every execution until a commission on capital punishment that was established in 2011 by the Pennsylvania State Senate produces a recommendation.
- Capital punishment debate in the United States
- Capital punishment by the United States federal government
- List of exonerated death row inmates
- List of United States Supreme Court decisions on capital punishment
- List of offenders executed in the United States in 2015
- Use of capital punishment by country
- Capital punishment for drug trafficking
- List of death row inmates in the United States
- List of wrongful convictions in the United States
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The court went beyond the question in the case to rule out the death penalty for any individual crime – as opposed to "offenses against the state," such as treason or espionage — "where the victim's life was not taken."
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(Describes the case of death row convict Elmo Patrick Sonnier, while also giving a general overview of issues connected to the death penalty)
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- on YouTube
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