Death Penalty in the USA

“How can a state, which represents the whole of society and has the task of protecting society, put itself on the same level as a murderer?”

Kofi Annan, former secretary-general of the United Nations (UN) on Dec. 20, 2000, in New York at the presentation of a petition against the death penalty with 3.2 million signatures collected worldwide

After a suspension of the execution of death sentences in 1967 and a judicial decision in 1972 that the death penalty laws were unconstitutional, the death penalty was reintroduced in 1976. Since then, over 1500 people have been executed so far. They have been hanged, gassed, shot, electrocuted, or killed by lethal injection.

Trend in annual executions and death sentences

However, the number of annual executions has steadily decreased over the past few years, and fewer death sentences have also been handed down: thus, 2019 was the year with the second-lowest execution rate in 28 years, with 22 executions; only in 2016 were fewer death sentences carried out, with a number of 20 executions – until corona-related 2020, when the number dropped to 17. The peak in the execution of death sentences since reintroduction was in the late 1990s, with 98 executions.

Most death sentences are carried out in Southern states. In 2019, for example, 91% of executions were carried out there, 41% of them in the state of Texas alone.

The number of new death sentences handed down in 2019 was also near record lows, with a total of 11 states and the U.S. federal court sentencing 34 people to death. The highest number of death sentences since reintroduction occurred from 1994 to 1996, with more than 310 each year.

Execution Methods

The most common method used today is so-called “lethal injection.” It is referred to as a “humane” execution, although it has not yet been scientifically proven that the condemned person does not suffer pain and agony during the procedure. Because of the considerable problems in procuring the drugs, the laws of some states permit recourse to alternative methods should execution by lethal injection not be possible.

Abolition and reintroduction of the death penalty in 1976

From 1972 to 1976, the death penalty was suspended in the United States. This was largely due to the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Furman v. Georgia (408 U.S. 238, 1972). The Court ruled at that time that the death penalty violated the Constitution, that it was cruel and unusual punishment, and therefore a violation of the Eighth Amendment.

Following this decision, states changed their laws and court procedures. Since then, there has been a guilt phase and a penalty phase in death penalty cases. In deciding Gregg v. Georgia (428 U.S. 153, 196), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty was again permissible under these circumstances. The first post-Furman execution took place on January 17, 1977; Gary Gilmore was executed by a firing squad in Utah.

Offenses punishable by death

Prior to 1972, people in the U.S. could be sentenced to death for murder, as well as for crimes in which no one had been killed, such as rape, robbery, etc.

After reinstating the death penalty, the United States Supreme Court ruled in 1976 in Woodson v. North Carolina (428 U.S. 280) and Roberts v. Louisiana (428 U.S. 325) that a state could only impose the death penalty if a murder was committed in connection with another crime.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Coker v. Georgia in 1977 barred the death penalty for rape, and subsequently for any crime other than murder. However, an exception provides for the retention of the death penalty for kidnapping in those cases in which the kidnap victim dies while in the grip of the kidnappers. This does not necessarily have to be by the kidnapper’s hand.

The federal government may also impose the death penalty for non-fatal crimes such as treason, espionage, and crimes under the jurisdiction of the military.

Executions of mentally retarded and minor offenders

It was not until 2002 that the execution of the mentally retarded was banned with the ruling in Atkins v. Virginia. To date, however, there is no uniform definition in the U.S. of what qualifies as “mentally retarded.” Accordingly, the hurdles for proving mental retardation remain very high in some states.

Thus, the execution of inmates whose mental sanity is quite questionable still occurs. One of the many examples is Warren Lee Hill, who was executed in Georgia in 2015, although experts assumed that he was mentally retarded.

In 2005, the death penalty was abolished for minors at the time of the crime with the ruling in Roper v. Simmons. At that time, there were 72 convicts in U.S. prisons who were under the age of 18 at the time of the crime. However, underage offenders can still be sentenced to life in prison.

States with and without the death penalty

The death penalty can be imposed and carried out in 27 states and under federal and military law. In the other 23 states and the District of Columbia, the death penalty does not (no longer) exist. Again, it can be seen that the death penalty is on the decline in the U.S.: 20 years ago, the death penalty was still on the books in 38 U.S. states.

States where the death penalty still exists:

North Carolina
South Carolina
South Dakota

States where the death penalty has been abolished:

Alaska (1957)
Colorado (2020)
Connecticut (2012)
Delaware (2016)
Hawaii (1957)
Illinois (2011)
Iowa (1965)
Maine (1887)
Maryland (2013)
Massachusetts (1984)
Michigan (1847)
Minnesota (1911)
New Hampshire (2019)
New Jersey (2007)
New Mexico (2009)
New York (2007)
North Dakota (1973)
Rhode Island (1984)
Vermont (1972)
Virginia (2021)
Washington (2018)
West Virginia (1965)
Wisconsin (1853)

A temporary moratorium suspension of the death penalty currently affects the states of California, Oregon, and Pennsylvania.

Sources and further information:

Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) and Amnesty International