Though a potential sentence of death is thought to deter murder rates, whether the state has the right to take a person's life is a question that raises moral, spiritual, political, and economic concerns.
In the early to mid-1970s, the U.S. Supreme Court put a moratorium on executions, ruling that the death penalty statutes in many states were unconstitutional. However, it reinstated the death penalty in 1976. As a result, many states rewrote their death penalty statutes and resumed death sentences and executions. Executions began to decline again in the 21st century, as recent death penalty statistics show.
How Are Executions Performed?
The technology and methods of executions for capital cases have changed significantly over the years. For the first 150 years of the United States' existence, prisoners were executed by hanging or firing squad. That changed in the 1880s, when the electric chair was invented. Electrocution became the standard method for executions until 1982, when lethal injection was used for the first time.
At one point, the death penalty was considered cruel and unusual punishment. Furman v. Georgia abolished the death penalty in 1972. However, the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 following the case of Gregg v. Georgia, and new death sentences were granted.
The death penalty was then restricted in 2002 when the Supreme Court held in Atkins v. Virginia that executing people with serious intellectual disabilities was unconstitutional. One more major restriction occurred three years later with Roper v. Simmons, in which the high court held that it was unconstitutional to execute juveniles.
As of the early 21st century, lethal injections remain the standard execution method. Although other methods are occasionally used — including the electric chair or firing squad as an option in certain states — executions are typically performed with chemicals. Most states use a three-drug lethal injection protocol, while others prefer a single drug. The three-drug protocol begins with a sedative, followed by a drug to paralyze the inmate, and a third drug (often potassium chloride) stops the prisoner's heart.
However, many drug companies that manufacture these substances have sued to stop states from using their drugs for lethal injections. Others stopped making those particular drugs. As a result, some states were left without the means to carry out scheduled executions. The controversy has led to officials in states like Texas seeking alternate suppliers, often agreeing to conceal their identities, and changing the drugs they use. Some critics claim corrections officials have even resorted to using expired drugs in death penalty cases.
Who Gets Executed?
The number and type of executions vary yearly and from state to state. Since the invention of the lethal injection procedure in 1982, an average of 46 people have been executed yearly in the U.S. This pace has slowed to fewer than 40 inmates a year executed in the past decade and 25 or fewer in the past five years.
Statistics often show racial disparities regarding who is sentenced and executed in capital cases. From 1976 to 2022, a little over half of those people executed were white, one-third were African American, and the remainder were of other races and ethnicities. The overwhelming majority of executed individuals have been men. Less than 1% have been women.
A judge may consider aggravating or mitigating factors before sentencing. A governor, administrative board, or president may consider clemency. Clemency is the same as commutation, or reducing a death sentence to a lesser sentence such as life in prison.
Most Recent Death Penalty Statistics
As of 2023, more than 1,573 convicts have been executed in the United States since 1976. The annual number of executions steadily declined from 2009, when there were 52, to 2016. It then began to rise again after only 20 people were executed that year.
According to statistics from the Death Penalty Information Center, the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and other sources:
- There were 192 exonerations for death-row prisoners from 1973 to 2023.
- Capital punishment may have a significant deterrent effect on murders.
- In 2023, 17 prisoners had been executed across the nation by Aug. 4.
- California had the most death row inmates (668) as of August 2023, followed by Florida with 316 inmates and Texas with 194. But California halted all executions under Gov. Gavin Newsom, with plans to end the penalty entirely.
- Regarding the races and ethnicities of those on death row as of 2022, 41% were Black, 42% were white, nearly 14% were Latino, less than 2% were Asian, and 1% were Native American.
- Texas (578) has executed the most prisoners since 1976, followed by Oklahoma (119) and Virginia (113).
- There were 50 women in the death row population (2%) and 2,313 men (97.88%) as of 2022.
Opinions vary when it comes to the death penalty. Some prefer life imprisonment without parole, challenging execution for a wide variety of reasons. Others strongly support capital punishment as an appropriate consequence of committing serious violent crimes.
One study found that the capital murder rate in states without the death penalty is consistently lower than the rate in states that legalize capital punishment. And in Georgia, according to a 2019 study, offenders convicted of killing white victims were 17 times more likely to be executed than those who murdered Black victims.
Which States Have the Death Penalty?
Many U.S. states practice capital punishment, although the trend has shifted away from execution as a criminal punishment. As of 2023, 27 states still allowed death sentences, though not all actively carried out executions:
The federal government and the U.S. military also allow the death penalty.
Meanwhile, 23 states and the District of Columbia have abolished capital punishment. These states abolished or otherwise stopped providing for a death penalty sentence in as of the years:
Want to Learn More About the Death Penalty? Talk to a Criminal Justice Attorney
Although the use of the death penalty only applies in some instances, it is a chilling reminder of the consequences of committing severe violent crimes. If you are facing criminal charges, it is in your best interest to contact an experienced criminal defense attorney to protect your rights.