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Death Row USA

Death penalty cases and statistics by state, ldf issues a quarterly report entitled death row usa that contains death penalty information, death row populations by state, and other capital punishment statistics in the united states. all reports below are adobe pdf downloads., for decades, ldf has been a pioneering voice in the fight to abolish the death penalty and eliminate racial discrimination from the courts. .

Whether administered by federal or state government, the death penalty is infected with fundamental flaws, including persistent racial discrimination, and human error. Currently. 27 states, the federal government, and the U.S. Military still have the death penalty. There is no credible evidence that the death penalty deters crime. Since 1973, at least 189 people wrongly convicted and sentenced to death have been exonerated. 100 of the death row exonerees are Black.  

Racism is inextricable from capital punishment. The death penalty has its roots in slavery, lynchings, white vigilantism, and the racial inequities in sentencing persist to this day.

As of January 1, 2022, 1,540 individuals have been executed since the 1976 reinstatement of the death penalty.

Ldf death penalty cases, furman v. georgia.

In our landmark 1972 case, Furman v. Georgia , LDF won the country’s first and only nationwide halt to executions when the Supreme Court struck down capital punishment in a memorable 5-4 decision.

McCleskey v. Kemp

In 1987, LDF returned to the Supreme Court to once again challenge the constitutionality of the death penalty in Georgia and persistent racial discrimination in its application in McCleskey v. Kemp.

In McCleskey v. Kemp, LDF presented compelling evidence proving how racial discrimination infected the capital punishment system. Regrettably, the justices dismissed the significance of well-documented racial disparities and decided they were not sufficient in overturning the death penalty sentence. The Supreme Court’s decision in McCleskey protected criminal justice laws and policies from being challenged on the basis of racially disparate impact. </span

Buck v. Davis

One of LDF’s most high profile death penalty cases in recent memory, Buck v. Davis challenged the death sentence of Texas death row inmate Duane Buck, whose death sentence was a blatant product of racial discrimination.

In order to hand down a death sentence in Texas, the jury must conclude that the defendant is likely to commit future violent acts. Mr. Buck’s own attorney introduced testimony in the sentencing phase of his trial that he was more likely to be dangerous solely because he is Black. LDF attorney Christina Swarns laid out a powerful argument before the Supreme Court as to why the rule of law demands a new sentencing hearing for Mr. Buck – one that is free from racial bias. In February 2017, the Supreme Court, by a vote of 6-2, declared that Mr. Buck’s trial counsel was constitutionally ineffective for introducing the “toxin” of racial bias into Mr. Buck’s capital sentencing hearing. The decision reversed his death sentence and he was re-sentenced to life in prison in October 2017.

Death Row USA: Read the Reports

Death Row USA includes death penalty statistics and information, data on death row populations by state, executions carried out, statistics on race and gender, current death penalty cases, and more in states with the death penalty.

Quarterly Reports 2023

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Summaries of Key Supreme Court Cases Related to the Death Penalty

Witherspoon v. Illinois , 391 U.S. 510 (1968): Jurors must be willing to impose the death penalty in order to sit on a capital jury.

Furman v. Georgia , 408 U.S. 238 (1972): The application of the death penalty is unconstitutional.

Woodson v. North Carolina , 428 U.S. 280 (1976): Mandatory death sentences violate the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.

Coker v. Georgia , 433 U.S. 584 (1977): Death sentences for the rape of an adult woman violate the Eighth Amendment.

Lockett v. Ohio , 438 U.S. 586 (1978): Death penalty statutes must allow consideration of mitigating evidence in addition to the circumstances of the offense in determining whether a defendant should be sentenced to death.

Enmund v. Florida , 458 U.S. 782 (1982): Death sentences for individuals who did not intend to kill the victim violate the Eighth Amendment.

Ford v. Wainwright , 477 U.S. 399 (1986): The Eighth Amendment prohibits the execution of a person who is insane and not aware of his execution or the reasons for it.

Batson v. Kentucky , 476 U.S. 79 (1986): It is unconstitutional to exclude potential jurors solely on the basis of race.

McCleskey v. Kemp , 481 U.S. 279 (1987): Statistical studies that show evidence of racial disparities in capital proceedings do not prove that an individual's death sentence is unconstitutional under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.

Thompson v. Oklahoma , 487 U.S. 815 (1988): The execution of a person under the age of 16 at the time of the offense is a violation of the Eighth Amendment.

Penry v. Lynaugh , 492 U.S. 302 (1989): It is not unconstitutional to execute a person with "mental retardation", however the Texas statute insufficiently allows jurors to consider "mental retardation" as a mitigating factor.

Stanford v. Kentucky , 492 U.S. 361 (1989): The Constitution does not prohibit the execution of individuals who were 16 or 17 at the time of the offense.

Herrera v. Collins , 506 U.S. 390 (1993): A defendant's claim of actual innocence does not entitle him to federal habeas relief.

Atkins v. Virginia , 536 U.S. 304 (2002): The execution of a person with "mental retardation" violates the Eighth Amendment.

Wiggins v. Smith , 539 U.S. 510 (2003): The Sixth Amendment requires defense counsel to conduct mitigation investigations in capital cases.

Roper v. Simmons , 543 U.S. 551 (2005): The Constitution prohibits the execution of individuals who were under 18 at the time of the offense.

Baze v. Rees , 553 U.S. 35 (2008) : The Supreme Court ruled that Kentucky's three-drug protocol for carrying out lethal injections does not amount to cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.

Kennedy v. Louisiana , 554 U.S. 407 (2008) : The U.S. Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional a Louisiana statute that allowed the death penalty for the rape of a child where the victim did not die.

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Death Penalty & Criminal Sentencing Supreme Court Cases

The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits the imposition of cruel and unusual punishment. The Supreme Court most often considers Eighth Amendment principles in the context of the death penalty, which remains in effect in many states and at the federal level. However, “three strikes” laws and certain other sentencing provisions may trigger Eighth Amendment scrutiny as well.

The Supreme Court has emphasized that a sentence does not need to be strictly proportionate to the crime to meet constitutional requirements. Meanwhile, it has limited capital punishment to a narrow range of crimes and forbidden its imposition on certain types of defendants.

Below is a selection of Supreme Court cases involving the death penalty and criminal sentencing, arranged from newest to oldest.

Author: Brett Kavanaugh

A sentencer need not make a separate factual finding of permanent incorrigibility before sentencing a murderer under 18 to life without parole.

Author: Neil Gorsuch

To establish that a state's chosen method cruelly “superadds” pain to the death sentence, a prisoner must show a feasible and readily implemented alternative method that would significantly reduce a substantial risk of severe pain and that the state has refused to adopt without a legitimate penological reason.

Author: Elena Kagan

The Eighth Amendment may permit executing a prisoner even if he cannot remember committing his crime. On the other hand, the Eighth Amendment may prohibit executing a prisoner even though he suffers from dementia or another disorder, rather than psychotic delusions.

Author: Samuel A. Alito, Jr.

To succeed in an Eighth Amendment method of execution claim, a prisoner must establish that the method creates a demonstrated risk of severe pain and that the risk is substantial when compared to the known and available alternatives.

The Eighth Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile homicide offenders.

Author: Anthony Kennedy

The Eighth Amendment does not permit a juvenile offender to be sentenced to life in prison without parole for a non-homicide crime.

Author: Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Without an appeal or cross-appeal by the prosecution, a federal appellate court cannot order an increase in the sentence of a defendant on its own initiative.

The Eighth Amendment is defined by the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society. This principle requires that resort to capital punishment be restrained, limited in its instances of application, and reserved for the worst of crimes, those that, in the case of crimes against individuals, take the victim's life.

Author: John Roberts

To constitute cruel and unusual punishment, an execution method must present a substantial or objectively intolerable risk of serious harm.

Author: Stephen Breyer

A state may limit the innocence-related evidence that a capital defendant can introduce at a sentencing proceeding to the evidence introduced at the original trial.

Author: Clarence Thomas

A state death penalty statute may direct imposition of the death penalty when the state has proved beyond a reasonable doubt that mitigators do not outweigh aggravators, including when the two are in equipoise.

The Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments forbid imposition of the death penalty on offenders who were under the age of 18 when their crimes were committed.

Author: Sandra Day O’Connor

Nothing in the Eighth Amendment prohibits a state from choosing to incapacitate criminals who have already been convicted of at least one serious or violent crime.

Author: John Paul Stevens

Executions of mentally retarded criminals are cruel and unusual punishments prohibited by the Eighth Amendment.

The Constitution requires that any fact that increases the penalty for a crime beyond the prescribed statutory maximum, other than the fact of a prior conviction, must be submitted to a jury and proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

Author: Antonin Scalia

The Eighth Amendment does not require strict proportionality between crime and sentence but instead forbids only extreme sentences that are grossly disproportionate to the crime.

Author: Byron White

The Constitution does not require that every finding of fact underlying a sentencing decision be made by a jury rather than a judge.

The Eighth Amendment does not prohibit the death penalty as disproportionate in the case of a defendant whose participation in a felony that results in murder is major and whose mental state is one of reckless indifference.

Author: Lewis Powell

A complex statistical study indicating a risk that racial considerations enter into capital sentencing determinations does not necessarily prove that a particular defendant's capital sentence was unconstitutional.

Author: Thurgood Marshall

The Eighth Amendment prohibits a state from inflicting the death penalty on a prisoner who is insane.

The Eighth Amendment does not require that a state appellate court, before it affirms a death sentence, compare the sentence in the case before it with the penalties imposed in similar cases if requested to do so by the defendant.

Criteria to consider in an Eighth Amendment proportionality analysis include the gravity of the offense and the harshness of the penalty, the sentences imposed on other criminals in the same jurisdiction, and the sentences imposed for the commission of the same crime in other jurisdictions.

The death sentence may not constitutionally be imposed after a jury verdict of guilt of a capital offense when the jury was not permitted to consider a verdict of guilt of a lesser included offense.

Author: Warren Burger

The Eighth Amendment generally requires that the sentencer not be precluded from considering mitigating factors related to any aspect of a defendant's character or record and any of the circumstances of the offense that the defendant proffers as a basis for a sentence less than death.

The sentence of death for the crime of rape violates the Eighth Amendment.

Author: John Paul Stevens , Lewis Powell , Potter Stewart

The punishment of death for the crime of murder does not, under all circumstances, violate the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. (This decision ended the temporary moratorium on the death penalty imposed by Furman .)

Author: Per Curiam

The imposition of the death penalty in these cases constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. (Concerns over the arbitrary and potentially discriminatory manner in which death sentences had been imposed led to a temporary nationwide moratorium on the death penalty as legislatures reviewed laws governing its administration.)

Author: Hugo Black

In considering the sentence to be imposed after a conviction, the sentencing judge is not restricted to information received in open court. This is true even when a death sentence is imposed.

Author: Joseph McKenna

The Eighth Amendment is progressive and may acquire wider meaning as public opinion becomes enlightened by humane justice.

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Every Person on Death Row Executed in the U.S. in 2022

Eighteen men were put to death in the U.S. in 2022 (article available here ).

This year was the eighth consecutive year with fewer than 30 executions, according to a report by the Death Penalty Information Center.

More than a third of the execution attempts in 2022 were mishandled. Seven visibly botched executions that took place in three states as “shocking,” even as the total number of executions remained among the lowest in a generation (previous coverage available here ).

Once again, executions were concentrated in the South. Texas and Oklahoma each executed five inmates, while Alabama put two inmates to death and Mississippi executed one. Arizona executed three inmates in 2022, while Missouri executed two.

Here are all 18 people who were executed in 2022:

January 27, 2022 : Oklahoma executed Donald Grant. He was 46 years old. His final words were reported to be disjointed and incoherent. "Yo, God, I got this," Grant said, according to witnesses. "No medication. I didn't take nothing. Brooklyn for life."

January 27, 2022 : Alabama executed Metthew Reeves . He was 43 years old. Reeves remained silent during his execution at Holman Prison.

February 17, 2022 : Oklahoma executed Gilbert Ray Postelle . He was 35 years old. He was killed with a lethal injection at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, and prison officials declared him dead at 10:14 a.m. He did not give any last words and glanced a few times at the seven witnesses who were in the viewing room.

April 21, 2022 : Texas executed Carl Wayne Buntion . He was 78 years old, and was Texas' oldest person on death row. "I wanted the Irby family to know one thing: I do have remorse for what I did," Buntion said while strapped to the Texas death chamber gurney. "I pray to God that they get the closure for me killing their father and Ms. Irby's husband.

May 3, 2022 : Missouri executed Carman Deck . He was 56 years old. Deck mouthed a few inaudible words as the 5 grams of pentobarbital were administered, then puffed out a couple of breaths before all movement stopped. "My hope is that one day the world will find peace and that we all will learn to be kind and loving to one another," Deck said in a written final statement. "We all are a part of this journey through life, connected in every way. Please give love, show love, BE LOVE!"

May 11, 2022 : Arizona executed Clarence Wayne Dixon , after a nearly eight-year hiatus in the state's use of the death penalty brought on by difficulty state officials faced in finding lethal injection drugs . He was 66 years old. The last time Arizona executed a prisoner was in July 2014, when Joseph Wood was given 15 doses of a two-drug combination over two hours in an execution that his lawyers said was botched . Wood snorted repeatedly and gasped more than 600 times before he died. Arizona has 112 people on death row.

June 8, 2022 : Arizona executed Frank Atwood at the state prison in Florence. He was 66 years old. This was the state's second execution since officials started carrying out the death penalty in May after a nearly eight-year hiatus.

July 28, 2022 : Alabama executed Joe Nathan James, Jr. He was 50 years old. Officials took three hours to set an IV line before putting James to death. The Death Penalty Information Center called it "the longest botched lethal injection execution in U.S. history."

Alabama’s prison system has been in the national spotlight, as hundreds of inmates die each year inside the overcrowded facilities set to contain them, drawing criticism from the federal government. But the system more recently has drawn national headlines for its handling of executions.

August 17, 2022 : Texas executed Kosoul Chanthakoummane . He was 41 years old. It was the second execution this year in a state that typically puts more people to death than any other. He used his final statement to thank Jesus Christ, ministers with the Texas prison system and "all these people in my life that aided me in this journey." Chanthakoummane added: "To Mrs. Walker's family, I pray that my death will bring them peace," he said into a microphone hanging above him as he lay on a prison gurney.

August 25, 2022 : Oklahoma executed James Coddington at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester. He was 50 years old.

October 5, 2022 : Texas executed John Henry Ramirez. "I am ready, Warden,” were his last words. His case clarified the role of spiritual advisors in death chambers. The U.S. Supreme Court sided with Ramirez in March when it ruled that states must accommodate death row inmates who want to have their faith leaders pray and touch them during their executions. Ramirez's spiritual adviser placed his right hand on Ramirez's chest during his execution, and held it there for the duration.

October 20, 2022 : Oklahoma executed by lethal injection Benjamin Cole . He was 57 years old. Cole, who suffered from schizophrenia and was severely mentally ill, declined a ceremonial last meal and chose not to have a spiritual adviser with him. His last words were a rambling stream of consciousness that referred at times to “the Lord” and “Jesus” and sometimes was too quiet to decipher.

November 9, 2022 : Texas executed Tracy Beatty . He was 61 years old. "I don't want to leave you baby, see you when you get there. I love you," he said in his final statement, addressing his wife who watched the procedure through a window.

November 16, 2022 : Arizona executed Murray Hooper . He was 76 years old. Hooper's last words were, "It's all been said, let it be done. Don't be sad for me. Don't cry. I'll see you later, let's go." This was the third execution in Arizona this year.

November 16, 2022 : Texas executed Stephen Barbee . He was 55 years old. In his final statement , he hoped his execution would not be a sad moment for his family and friends. “I just want everyone to have peace in their heart, make eternity with Jesus, give him the glory in everything you do. I’m ready,” he said, just before a lethal dose of pentobarbital was injected.

November 17, 2022 : Oklahoma executed Richard Stephen Fairchild , an ex-Marine, on his 63rd birthday. "Today's a day for Adam, justice for Adam," Fairchild said while strapped to gurney in the death chamber. "I'm at peace with God. Don't grieve for me because I'm going home to meet my heavenly father."

November 29, 2022 : Missouri executed Kevin Johnson despite his attorneys arguing that the case was tainted with racism and a special prosecutor filing a motion to vacate the death sentence. He was 37 years old. He didn’t give a final statement.

December 14, 2022 : Mississippi executed Thomas Edwin Loden Jr. He was 58 years old. Loden, a former US Marines Corps recruiter, said he was “deeply remorseful” for murdering Gray, who was soon to be a senior in high school. He said he knew he could never take back the heartbreak he caused by killing the teenager in his final words. “For the past 20 years, I’ve tried to do a good deed every single day to make up for the life I took from this world,” he said. “I know these are mere words and cannot erase the damage I did. If today brings you nothing else, I hope you get peace and closure.”

Eleven people were executed in the U.S. last year, the fewest since 1988: Texas executed three people, Oklahoma executed two  and one each were put to death in Alabama, Mississippi and Missouri. Three federal inmates were executed in January 2021, toward the end of Donald Trump's presidency.

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10 facts about the death penalty in the u.s..

Most U.S. adults support the death penalty for people convicted of murder, according to an April 2021 Pew Research Center survey . At the same time, majorities believe the death penalty is not applied in a racially neutral way, does not deter people from committing serious crimes and does not have enough safeguards to prevent an innocent person from being executed.

Use of the death penalty has gradually declined in the United States in recent decades. A growing number of states have abolished it, and death sentences and executions have become less common. But the story is not one of continuous decline across all levels of government. While state-level executions have decreased, the federal government put more prisoners to death under President Donald Trump than at any point since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976.

As debates over the death penalty continue in the U.S. , here’s a closer look at public opinion on the issue, as well as key facts about the nation’s use of capital punishment.

This Pew Research Center analysis examines public opinion about the death penalty in the United States and explores how the nation has used capital punishment in recent decades. 

The public opinion findings cited here are based primarily on a Pew Research Center survey of 5,109 U.S. adults, conducted from April 5 to 11, 2021. Everyone who took part in the survey is a member of the Center’s American Trends Panel (ATP), an online survey panel that is recruited through national, random sampling of residential addresses. This way nearly all U.S. adults have a chance of selection. The survey is weighted to be representative of the U.S. adult population by gender, race, ethnicity, partisan affiliation, education and other categories. Read more about the ATP’s methodology . Here are the  questions used  from this survey, along with responses, and its  methodology .

Findings about the administration of the death penalty – including the number of states with and without capital punishment, the annual number of death sentences and executions, the demographics of those on death row and the average amount of time spent on death row – come from the Death Penalty Information Center and the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Six-in-ten U.S. adults strongly or somewhat favor the death penalty for convicted murderers, according to the April 2021 survey. A similar share (64%) say the death penalty is morally justified when someone commits a crime like murder.

A bar chart showing that the majority of Americans favor the death penalty, but nearly eight-in-ten see ‘some risk’ of executing the innocent

Support for capital punishment is strongly associated with the view that it is morally justified in certain cases. Nine-in-ten of those who favor the death penalty say it is morally justified when someone commits a crime like murder; only a quarter of those who oppose capital punishment see it as morally justified.

A majority of Americans have concerns about the fairness of the death penalty and whether it serves as a deterrent against serious crime. More than half of U.S. adults (56%) say Black people are more likely than White people to be sentenced to death for committing similar crimes. About six-in-ten (63%) say the death penalty does not deter people from committing serious crimes, and nearly eight-in-ten (78%) say there is some risk that an innocent person will be executed.

Opinions about the death penalty vary by party, education and race and ethnicity. Republicans and Republican-leaning independents are much more likely than Democrats and Democratic leaners to favor the death penalty for convicted murderers (77% vs. 46%). Those with less formal education are also more likely to support it: Around two-thirds of those with a high school diploma or less (68%) favor the death penalty, compared with 63% of those with some college education, 49% of those with a bachelor’s degree and 44% of those with a postgraduate degree. Majorities of White (63%), Asian (63%) and Hispanic adults (56%) support the death penalty, but Black adults are evenly divided, with 49% in favor and 49% opposed.

Views of the death penalty differ by religious affiliation . Around two-thirds of Protestants in the U.S. (66%) favor capital punishment, though support is much higher among White evangelical Protestants (75%) and White non-evangelical Protestants (73%) than it is among Black Protestants (50%). Around six-in-ten Catholics (58%) also support capital punishment, a figure that includes 61% of Hispanic Catholics and 56% of White Catholics.

Atheists oppose the death penalty about as strongly as Protestants favor it

Opposition to the death penalty also varies among the religiously unaffiliated. Around two-thirds of atheists (65%) oppose it, as do more than half of agnostics (57%). Among those who say their religion is “nothing in particular,” 63% support capital punishment.

Support for the death penalty is consistently higher in online polls than in phone polls. Survey respondents sometimes give different answers depending on how a poll is conducted. In a series of contemporaneous Pew Research Center surveys fielded online and on the phone between September 2019 and August 2020, Americans consistently expressed more support for the death penalty in a self-administered online format than in a survey administered on the phone by a live interviewer. This pattern was more pronounced among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents than among Republicans and GOP leaners, according to an analysis of the survey results .

Phone polls have shown a long-term decline in public support for the death penalty. In phone surveys conducted by Pew Research Center between 1996 and 2020, the share of U.S. adults who favor the death penalty fell from 78% to 52%, while the share of Americans expressing opposition rose from 18% to 44%. Phone surveys conducted by Gallup found a similar decrease in support for capital punishment during this time span.

A majority of states have the death penalty, but far fewer use it regularly. As of July 2021, the death penalty is authorized by 27 states and the federal government – including the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. military – and prohibited in 23 states and the District of Columbia, according to the Death Penalty Information Center . But even in many of the jurisdictions that authorize the death penalty, executions are rare: 13 of these states, along with the U.S. military, haven’t carried out an execution in a decade or more. That includes three states – California , Oregon and Pennsylvania – where governors have imposed formal moratoriums on executions.

A map showing that most states have the death penalty, but significantly fewer use it regularly

A growing number of states have done away with the death penalty in recent years, either through legislation or a court ruling. Virginia, which has carried out more executions than any state except Texas since 1976, abolished capital punishment in 2021. It followed Colorado (2020), New Hampshire (2019), Washington (2018), Delaware (2016), Maryland (2013), Connecticut (2012), Illinois (2011), New Mexico (2009), New Jersey (2007) and New York (2004).

Death sentences have steadily decreased in recent decades. There were 2,570 people on death row in the U.S. at the end of 2019, down 29% from a peak of 3,601 at the end of 2000, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). New death sentences have also declined sharply: 31 people were sentenced to death in 2019, far below the more than 320 who received death sentences each year between 1994 and 1996. In recent years, prosecutors in some U.S. cities – including Orlando and Philadelphia – have vowed not to seek the death penalty, citing concerns over its application.

Nearly all (98%) of the people who were on death row at the end of 2019 were men. Both the mean and median age of the nation’s death row population was 51. Black prisoners accounted for 41% of death row inmates, far higher than their 13% share of the nation’s adult population that year. White prisoners accounted for 56%, compared with their 77% share of the adult population. (For both Black and White Americans, these figures include those who identify as Hispanic. Overall, about 15% of death row prisoners in 2019 identified as Hispanic, according to BJS.)

A line graph showing that death sentences, executions have trended downward in U.S. since late 1990s

Annual executions are far below their peak level. Nationally, 17 people were put to death in 2020, the fewest since 1991 and far below the modern peak of 98 in 1999, according to BJS and the Death Penalty Information Center. The COVID-19 outbreak disrupted legal proceedings in much of the country in 2020, causing some executions to be postponed .

Even as the overall number of executions in the U.S. fell to a 29-year low in 2020, the federal government ramped up its use of the death penalty. The Trump administration executed 10 prisoners in 2020 and another three in January 2021; prior to 2020, the federal government had carried out a total of three executions since 1976.

The Biden administration has taken a different approach from its predecessor. In July 2021, Attorney General Merrick Garland ordered a halt in federal executions while the Justice Department reviews its policies and procedures.

A line graph showing that prisoners executed in 2019 spent an average of 22 years on death row

The average time between sentencing and execution in the U.S. has increased sharply since the 1980s. In 1984, the average time between sentencing and execution was 74 months, or a little over six years, according to BJS . By 2019, that figure had more than tripled to 264 months, or 22 years. The average prisoner awaiting execution at the end of 2019, meanwhile, had spent nearly 19 years on death row.

A variety of factors explain the increase in time spent on death row, including lengthy legal appeals by those sentenced to death and challenges to the way states and the federal government carry out executions, including the drugs used in lethal injections. In California, more death row inmates have died from natural causes or suicide than from executions since 1978, according to the state’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation .

Note: This is an update to a post originally published May 28, 2015.

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Death penalty draws more Americans’ support online than in telephone surveys

Most americans favor the death penalty despite concerns about its administration, california is one of 11 states that have the death penalty but haven’t used it in more than a decade, public support for the death penalty ticks up, most popular.

About Pew Research Center Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping the world. It conducts public opinion polling, demographic research, media content analysis and other empirical social science research. Pew Research Center does not take policy positions. It is a subsidiary of The Pew Charitable Trusts .

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The question we need to ask about the death penalty in America is not whether someone deserves to die for a crime. The question is whether we deserve to kill.

EJI won Anthony Ray Hinton’s release after he spent 30 years on death row for a crime he did not commit. (Bernard Troncale)

The death penalty in America is a flawed, expensive policy, defined by bias and error. It targets the most vulnerable people in our society and corrupts the integrity of our criminal justice system. From police officers to family members of murder victims, Americans are recognizing that the death penalty does not make us safer.

EJI provides legal assistance to people on death row, many of whom are innocent or wrongly convicted . We provide representation at trial, on appeal, and in postconviction proceedings to people facing execution. We have documented widespread racial bias in the administration of the death penalty and we challenge racial discrimination in jury selection, sentencing, and throughout the system. We protect vulnerable people facing execution, including people with mental illness who are uniquely at risk, and we produce reports about capital punishment and the ways in which public safety can be undermined by relying on this expensive and flawed punishment.

Innocence and Error

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Walter McMillian

Mr. McMillian was wrongly convicted and sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit.

195 people have been exonerated and released from death row since 1973. 1 Death Penalty Information Center, “ Innocence Database .”

1,582 people have been executed in the U.S. since 1973. 2 Death Penalty Information Center, “ Execution Database .”

For every eight people executed, one person on death row has been exonerated.

The same factors drive wrongful convictions in non-capital cases and death penalty cases, including:

  • erroneous eyewitness identifications
  • false and coerced confessions
  • inadequate legal defense
  • false or misleading forensic evidence
  • false accusations or perjury by witnesses who are promised lenient treatment or other incentives in exchange for their testimony.

In death penalty cases, perjury/false accusations and official misconduct are the leading causes of wrongful convictions. 3 Robert Dunham, “ The Most Common Causes of Wrongful Death Penalty Convictions: Official Misconduct and Perjury or False Accusation ,” Death Penalty Information Center (May 31, 2017).   A record 111 exonerations in 2018 involved witnesses who lied on the stand or falsely accused the defendant. In 50 of these cases, the defendant was falsely accused of a crime that never happened. 4 The National Registry of Exonerations, “ Exonerations in 2018 ” (Apr. 9, 2019).

Misconduct by police or prosecutors (or both) was involved in 79% of homicide exonerations in 2018. Concealing evidence that casts doubt on the defendant’s guilt is t he most common type of misconduct, which includes police officers threatening witnesses, forensic analysts faking test results, and prosecutors presenting false testimony. 5 The National Registry of Exonerations, “ Exonerations in 2018 ” (Apr. 9, 2019).

Official misconduct is more common in death penalty cases, especially if the defendant is Black. Data shows that 87% of Black exonerees who were sentenced to death were victims of official misconduct, compared to 67% of white death row exonerees. 6 Robert Dunham, “ The Most Common Causes of Wrongful Death Penalty Convictions: Official Misconduct and Perjury or False Accusation ,” Death Penalty Information Center (May 31, 2017).

A person doesn’t have to be innocent to be wrongly sentenced to death. The intense pressure to obtain a death sentence and the political stakes for police, prosecutors, and even judges can cause serious legal errors that contribute to wrongful convictions and death sentences. In Alabama alone, over 160 death sentences have been invalidated by state and federal courts, resulting in conviction of a lesser offense or a lesser sentence on retrial.

Inadequate Counsel

Anthony ray hinton.

Inadequate legal assistance, racial bias, and prosecutorial indifference to innocence make Mr. Hinton’s case a textbook example of injustice.

The failure to provide adequate counsel to capital defendants and people sentenced to death is a defining feature of the American death penalty. Whether a defendant will be sentenced to death typically depends on the quality of his legal team more than any other factor.

Some lawyers provide outstanding representation to capital defendants. But few defendants facing capital charges can afford to hire an attorney, so they are appointed lawyers who are frequently overworked, underpaid, and inexperienced in trying death penalty cases. 

Capital cases are especially complex, time-intensive, and financially draining. Lawyers representing indigent capital defendants often face enormous caseloads, caps on fees, and a critical lack of resources for investigation and expert assistance. Too often they fail to adequately investigate cases, call witnesses, and challenge forensic evidence. 7 Stephen B. Bright, “ Counsel for the Poor: The Death Sentence Not for the Worst Crime but for the Worst Lawyer “ , 103 Yale Law Journal 1835, 1835, 1843 (1994). Capital defense l awyers have slept through parts of trial, shown up in court intoxicated, or done no work to prepare for sentencing. 8 R. Rosie Gorn, “ Adequate Representation: The Difference Between Life and Death ,” American Criminal Law Review (2018).

Few states provide enough funding for capital defense counsel, and most death penalty states don’t require lawyers to meet the minimum training and experience guidelines set by the American Bar Association . 9 American Bar Association, “ Guidelines for the Appointment and Performance of Defense Counsel in Death Penalty Cases ” (2003).

Inadequate defense lawyers contribute to wrongful convictions and death sentences, and by failing to object at trial, they make it harder to correct errors on appeal. After that first appeal, there’s no right to counsel. That leaves people sentenced to death with little hope for relief in postconviction proceedings, where they have to present new evidence and navigate complicated procedural rules. 10 ACLU, “ Slamming the Courthouse Doors: Denial of Access to Justice and Remedy in America ” (Dec. 2010).

Racial Bias

Related Report

Lynching in America

The death penalty is a direct descendant of racial terror lynching.

The death penalty in America is a “direct descendant of lynching.” Racial terror lynchings gave way to executions in response to criticism that torturing and killing Black people for cheering audiences was undermining America’s image and moral authority on the world stage. 11 Stephen B. Bright, “ Discrimination, Death and Denial: The Tolerance of Racial Discrimination in Infliction of the Death Penalty “ , 35 Santa Clara Law Review 433, 439 (1995).

By 1915, court-ordered executions outpaced lynchings for the first time. Two-thirds of people executed in the 1930s were Black, and the trend continued. African Americans’ share of the South’s population fell to just 22% by 1950, but 75% of people executed in the South were Black. 12 James W. Clarke, “ Without Fear or Shame: Lynching, Capital Punishment and the Subculture of Violence in the American South ,” 28 British Journal of Political Science 269, 287 (Apr. 1998).

In 1972, the Supreme Court struck down the death penalty because it looked too much like “self-help, vigilante justice, and lynch law.” 13 Furman v. Georgia , 408 U.S. 238, 308 (Stewart, J., concurring). “If any basis can be discerned for the selection of these few to be sentenced to die,” the Court wrote in Furman v. Georgia , “it is the constitutionally impermissible basis of race.”

Southern lawmakers accused the Court of “destroying our system of government” and quickly passed new death penalty laws. “There should be more hangings. Put more nooses on the gallows,” proponents of Georgia’s new law insisted. “It wouldn’t be too bad to hang some on the court house square, and let those who would plunder and destroy see.” 14 David Garland, Peculiar Institution: America’s Death Penalty in an Age of Abolition 232, 247-48 (2010). The Supreme Court upheld Georgia’s new death penalty statute in 1976, 15 Gregg v. Georgia , 428 U.S. 153, 184 (1976). and racial bias in the death penalty persisted.

A decade later, the Court considered statistical evidence presented in  McCleskey v. Kemp showing that Georgia defendants were more than four times as likely to be sentenced to death if the murder victim was white than if the victim was Black. The Court accepted the data was accurate, but it refused to reverse the death sentence because it concluded that racial bias in sentencing is “an inevitable part of our criminal justice system.” 16 McCleskey v. Kemp , 481 U.S. 279, 312 (1987).

African Americans make up 41% of people on death row and 34% of those executed, 17 Death Penalty Information Center, “ Race and the Death Penalty by the Numbers “. but only 13% of the population is Black. 18 U.S. Census Bureau, “ QuickFacts ” (July 1, 2018).

More than 8 in 10 lynchings between 1889 and 1918 and legal executions since 1976 have occurred in the South. 19 EJI, Lynching in America ; Death Penalty Information Center, “ Executions by State and Region Since 1976 .”

75% of executions for murder were in cases with white victims. 20 Death Penalty Information Center, “ Race .”

Race still influences who is sentenced to death and executed in America today. The data in Georgia has actually gotten worse: people convicted of killing white victims are 17 times more likely to be executed than those convicted of killing Black victims. 21 Death Penalty Information Center, “ Study Finds Staggering Race-of-Victim Disparities in Georgia Executions and that the Death-Penalty Appeals Process Makes Them Worse “ (Sept. 18, 2019).

Race and the Jury

Nearly 150 years after Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1875 to eliminate racial discrimination in jury selection, people of color continue to be excluded from jury service because of their race.

In capital trials, the accused is often the only person of color in the courtroom. Illegal racial discrimination in jury selection is widespread, especially in the South and in capital cases—thousands of Black people called for jury service have been illegally excluded from juries.  

Southern lawmakers today invoke “states’ rights” to defeat anti-discrimination bills just like they did to block federal anti-lynching laws. And regional data demonstrates that the modern death penalty in America mirrors the racial violence of the past. 22 Stephen B. Bright, “ Discrimination, Death and Denial: The Tolerance of Racial Discrimination in Infliction of the Death Penalty ,” 35 Santa Clara Law Review 433, 439 (1995).


Madison v. alabama.

EJI won a ruling from the Supreme Court recognizing that people with dementia are protected from execution.

In 1976, the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment so long as it is imposed only on people who “deserve” it. The Court has since barred the death penalty for certain groups of people who are not culpable enough to “deserve” execution.

At least 44 people with intellectual disability were executed before the Supreme Court banned such executions in 2002. 23 Death Penalty Information Center, “ List of Defendants with Intellectual Disability Executed in the United States (1976–2002) .”

366 people who were children at the time of their offense were executed before such executions were banned in 2005. 24 Victor L. Streib, “ The Juvenile Death Penalty Today: Death Sentences and Executions for Juvenile Crimes, January 1, 1973-February 28, 2005 ” (Oct. 7, 2005).

Mental health experts estimate at least 20% of people on death row today have a serious mental illness. 25 Mental Health America, “ Position Statement 54: Death Penalty And People With Mental Illnesses ” (June 14, 2016). 

Intellectual Disability

In 2002, the Court in Atkins v. Virginia barred the execution of people with intellectual disability because they “do not act with the level of moral culpability that characterizes the most serious adult criminal conduct” and because “ their disabilities in areas of reasoning, judgment, and control of their impulses [can] j eopardize the reliability and fairness of capital proceedings.” 26 Atkins v. Virginia , 536 U.S. 304 (2002).

But because the Court “le[ft] to the State[s] the task of developing appropriate ways to enforce the constitutional restriction,” some states created narrow definitions that permit the execution of people who meet the clinical criteria for intellectual disability. 27 Death Penalty Information Center, “ Continuing Issues: Determining Intellectual Disability After Atkins .”

Three years after Atkins , the Court applied the same reasoning in Roper v. Simmons to bar the execution of children because “ juvenile offenders cannot with reliability be classified among the worst offenders.” 28 Roper v. Simmons , 543 U.S. 551 (2005).

“Their own vulnerability and comparative lack of control over their immediate surroundings mean juveniles have a greater claim than adults to be forgiven for failing to escape negative influences in their whole environment.”

When Roper was decided, 71 people were on death row for juvenile crimes.   Two-thirds were people of color, and more than two-thirds of the victims were white. 29 Victor L. Streib, “ The Juvenile Death Penalty Today: Death Sentences and Executions for Juvenile Crimes, January 1, 1973-February 28, 2005 ” (Oct. 7, 2005).

Related Article

Court Acknowledges Wrongful Execution of 14-Year-Old George Stinney

Mental illness.

Executing people with mental illness presents the same concerns about culpability and reliability that led the Court to bar the death penalty for children and people with intellectual disability.  People who have a mental illness or disability that significantly impairs their cognitive or volitional functioning at the time of the offense should be exempted from capital punishment because they do not act with the level of moral culpability that characterizes the most serious adult criminal conduct.

People with mental illness are more vulnerable to police pressure, are less able to give meaningful assistance to their counsel, and are typically poor witnesses. People who have a mental illness that causes delusions are more likely to insist on representing themselves at trial; they are prone to outbursts in front of their juries and some are so heavily medicated that they appear to have no remorse. 30 American Civil Liberties Union, “ Slamming the Courthouse Doors: Denial of Access to Justice and Remedy in America ” (Dec. 2010).

There’s a greater risk that people with mental illness will be executed without review of their convictions or sentences even though the law forbids executing people who are mentally incompetent. Nearly 10% of the people executed since 1976 have been so-called “volunteers” who gave up their appeals, 31 Death Penalty Information Center, “ Execution Volunteers “ (April 23, 2019). and over 75% of those who waive their appeals suffer from documented mental illness. 32 John H. Blume, “ Killing the Willing: “Volunteers,” Suicide and Competency ,” 103 Michigan Law Review 939, 962 (2005).

Mental health experts estimate at least 20% of people on death row today have a serious mental illness. 33 Mental Health America, “ Position Statement 54: Death Penalty And People With Mental Illnesses ” (June 14, 2016). At least 10% of the people currently sentenced to death nationwide are military veterans, many of whom suffer from documented trauma disorders. 34 Richard C. Dieter, “ Battle Scars: Military Veterans and the Death Penalty ,” Death Penalty Information Center (Nov. 2015).

EJI believes that executing people with mental illness is cruel and misguided. Rather than executing people who are themselves victims of trauma, violent injury, or disease as a symbol of society’s moral outrage about violent crime, we should dedicate our resources to providing mental health care and support that would actually reduce violent crime in our communities.

Public Safety

Related Resource

National Catholic Reporter

Over 250 conservative activists signed a statement calling for an end to capital punishment.

After more than three decades of research examining whether the threat of a death sentence deters people from committing aggravated murders, there is no reliable evidence that the death penalty deters murder or that it protects police. The National Research Council of the National Academies concluded that studies claiming the death penalty has a deterrent effect are fundamentally flawed. 35 National Research Council of the National Academies, Deterrence and the Death Penalty 2 (Daniel S. Nagin & John V. Pepper eds., 2012). Studies have shown that murder rates, including murders of police officers, are consistently higher in states that have the death penalty, while states that abolished the death penalty have the lowest rates of police officers killed in the line of duty. 36 Death Penalty Information Center, Capital Punishment and Police Safety (2017).

Geographical Arbitrariness

The likelihood of a death sentence or execution depends more on the county where the crime happened than the severity of the offense. Only 2% of the counties in the U.S. have been responsible for the majority of cases leading to executions since 1976. And only 2% of the counties are responsible for the majority of today’s death row population and recent death sentences. But all state taxpayers have to bear the substantial financial costs of death penalty cases in the handful of counties that cling to this outdated and ineffective policy. 37 Death Penalty Information Center, “ The 2% Death Penalty: How a Minority of Counties Produce Most Death Cases At Enormous Costs to All “ (Oct. 2013).

The death penalty is far more expensive than a system in which life imprisonment without parole is the maximum sentence. Sophisticated studies at the state level show that the death penalty costs taxpayers more than life without parole. 38 Death Penalty Information Center, State Studies on Monetary Costs (2017). Republicans leading a movement for abolition in some of the most conservative states in the country have condemned the death penalty as an expensive government program that is ineffective in deterring crime. 39 Reid Wilson, “ Red States Move to End Death Penalty ,” The Hill (Feb. 4, 2019).


The death penalty draws attention away from effective public safety policies and distorts elections of judges and prosecutors by privileging “tough on crime” rhetoric and candidates. A nationwide survey of police chiefs put the death penalty last among their priorities for reducing violent crime—below increasing the number of police officers, reducing drug abuse, and creating a better economy. Surveyed law enforcement officials said they did not believe the death penalty is a deterrent to murder, and they rated it as one of most inefficient uses of taxpayer dollars in fighting crime. 40 Death Penalty Information Center, “ Smart on Crime: Reconsidering the Death Penalty in a Time of Economic Crisis “ (Oct. 2009).

Use of the death penalty and public support for it are declining. New death sentences have remained near record lows since 2015 after peaking at more than 300 per year in the mid-90s. Executions have declined significantly over the past two decades. 41 Death Penalty Information Center, “ The Death Penalty in 2018: Year End Report “ (July 2019).

Eleven of the 23 states that have abolished the death penalty have done so since 2004 :  New Jersey (2007), New York (2007), New Mexico (2009), Illinois (2011), Connecticut (2012), Maryland (2013), Delaware (2016), Washington (2018), New Hampshire (2019), Colorado (2020), and Virginia (2021). In 2019, California joined Oregon (2011) and Pennsylvania (2015) in imposing a moratorium on executions.

Public support for the death penalty has been waning steadily—a record low 49% of Americans said they supported the death penalty in 2016. 42 Death Penalty Information Center, “ Public Support for the Death Penalty Drops Below 50% for First Time in 45 Years ” (Sept. 30, 2016).  

And the near-universal opposition to capital punishment among 2020 Democratic presidential candidates signifies a major shift from 1992, when Bill Clinton left the campaign trail to oversee an execution in Arkansas. “Smart on crime” policy solutions, including alternatives to the death penalty, are edging out the rhetoric of “tough on crime” even in very conservative states. 43 Gideon Resnick & Sam Stein, “ The 2020 Democratic Field, Minus Joe Biden, Embraces a Death Penalty Moratorium ,” The Daily Beast (March 14, 2019).

Alabama’s Death Penalty

Alabama’s death penalty.

Facts about death sentences, executions, inadequate counsel, and judge override.

EJI has been documenting facts about Alabama’s death penalty for more than 30 years. We have reported on the state’s failure to provide effective lawyers to people facing the death penalty and on its unique and arbitrary practice of judge override. We provide information about death sentences and executions in Alabama—including that the state consistently has one of the highest per capita execution rates in the nation.

Featured Work

EJI has been challenging the death penalty for more than 30 years. We represent people who have been sentenced to death and have won relief for over 130 people. We advocate across the globe and build support for abolition with projects like Just Mercy .

Challenging Alabama's Death Penalty

Alabama is an outlier, with the nation’s highest death sentencing and execution rates.

Defending People with Mental Illness

EJI won an important victory when the Supreme Court recognized that people with dementia, like our client Vernon Madison, are protected from execution.

Documenting Racial Discrimination in Jury Selection

EJI’s research shows that people of color continue to be excluded from jury service because of their race, especially in death penalty cases.

Explore more in Criminal Justice Reform

    In evaluating the data . . . the reader should bear in mind that the vast majority of homicides in the United States, like most violent crimes, are investigated exclusively by local police officers working hand-in-hand with local prosecutors, who file charges against defendants in state courts, either as a capital case or non-capital case. When a homicide is prosecuted federally - either as a capital or non-capital case - it is often because of the availability of certain federal laws or because of a federal initiative to address a particular crime problem. Criminal organizations often operate in multiple jurisdictions, making it difficult for any single local prosecutor to investigate or prosecute a case. Additionally, many states lack the equivalent of the federal witness protection program and the ability to conduct complex long-term investigations using resource intensive investigative techniques such as court-ordered wiretaps and undercover operations.     Apart from these differences in laws and resources, which often affect whether a particular homicide is prosecuted in state or federal court - either as a capital or non-capital case - state and federal law enforcement officials often work cooperatively to maximize their overall ability to prevent and prosecute violent criminal activity in their respective communities. Such cooperation is a central feature of current federal law enforcement policy. In some areas, these cooperative efforts lead to agreements that certain kinds of offenses, particularly violent crimes, will be handled by federal authorities . . . . In some cities, a large number of cases involving multiple murders by drug and other criminal organizations are investigated by joint federal and local task forces and prosecuted federally due to some of the factors cited above, such as the geographic reach of the organization and the availability of a witness protection program.
  • The District of Maryland charged capital crimes and submitted to the Department's review procedure cases involving 41 defendants, of whom 36 were Black. However, it recommended the death penalty for only five of the 36, a proportion of 14%. This is below the national proportion of 25% for recommendations by U.S. Attorneys that the death penalty be sought for Black defendants in submitted cases.
  • The Eastern District of New York submitted cases involving 58 defendants to the review procedure, of whom 19 were White, 20 were Black, 12 were Hispanic, and 7 were in the "Other" category. It only recommended the death penalty for one of the Black defendants, and for none of the Hispanic defendants.
  • The Southern District of New York submitted cases involving 50 defendants to the review procedure, involving 4 White defendants, 17 Black defendants, 28 Hispanic defendants, and 1 "Other" defendant. This was a considerably higher proportion of Hispanic defendants than the national norm - but the district recommended the death penalty for none of them. The district recommended the death penalty for 5 of the 17 Black defendants, a proportion of 29%, which differed little from the national norm of 25%.


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