The death penalty has been and remains a contentious topic. Whether the state has the right to take a person's life is a question that raises moral, spiritual, political, and economic concerns. For a short period in the early to mid 1970s, the U.S. Supreme Court put a moratorium on executions, ruling that the death penalty statutes of many states were unconstitutional, although it later reinstated the death penalty in 1976.
As a result, many states rewrote their death penalty statutes and resumed death sentences and executions. However, executions began to decline again in the 21st Century, as recent death penalty statistics show.
How are Executions Performed?
The technology and methods involved in state-run executions have changed significantly over the years. For the first 150 years of the country's existence, prisoners were executed either by hanging or by 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.
As of the early 21st Century, lethal injections remain the preferred method for execution. Although other methods are occasionally used (including the electric chair as an option in Alabama, Florida, and four other states), the vast majority of executions are performed by lethal injection.
However, many of the drug companies that manufacture the substances used in lethal injections have sued to stop states from using their drugs in this manner. Others simply stopped making those particular drugs. As a result, some states (most notably Nebraska) were left without the means to carry out scheduled executions.
Who Gets Executed?
The number and type of executions vary from year to year and from state to state. Since the invention of the lethal injection procedure in 1982, an average of forty-six people were executed per year. This pace has slowed to fewer than thirty inmates a year executed in the last decade.
Approximately half of those people executed were white, one third were African-Americans, and the remainder were of other races. The overwhelming majority of executed individuals have been men; fewer than one percent of people executed during that time have been women.
Most Recent Death Penalty Statistics
A total of 1491 convicts have been executed in the United States since 1976, with 23 in 2017 and 25 in 2018. The annual number of executions had been in decline since 2009, when there 52, but began to rise after only 20 people were executed in 2016. The following death penalty statistics are from the Death Penalty Information Center, the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and other sources.
- There were 164 death row exonerations (using DNA and other evidence) between 1973 and 2018, an average of 5 per year.
- As of April 1, 2018, California had the most death row inmates with 740, followed by Florida with 353, and Texas with 232, with a total of 2,738 death row inmates.
- Of those on death row, as of April 1, 2018, 42% are African-American, 42% are Caucasian, 13% are Hispanic, and 3% are classified as "other."
- Between 1967 and 2018, Texas has executed the most prisoners with 559, followed by Virginia with 113. Although California has the highest number of prisoners on death row, the state has only executed a total of 13 prisoners in total.
- As of July 1, 2017, there were 53 women on death row.
- Capital punishment, despite being limited to 13 prisoners so far, has cost California roughly $4 billion since the state reinstated capital punishment in 1978, according to a study by a federal judge and a law school professor.
- According to a 2010 poll, 61% of registered voters would choose an alternative to the death penalty for capital murder sentencing.
- California (26%), Florida (14%), and Texas (9%) had nearly half (49%) of all death row prisoners in 2016. California has imposed a moratorium on executions.
Which States have the Death Penalty?
Many U.S. states practice capital punishment, although the trend is moving away from execution as a criminal punishment. As of 2021, twenty-four states still allow for the death penalty:
Want to Learn More About the Death Penalty? Talk to an Attorney
As you can see, the death penalty is still carried out in some states. Although it only applies in certain cases, it is an extreme reminder of the serious consequences of the criminal justice process. If you are facing criminal charges, it is in your best interests to contact an experienced criminal defense attorney to ensure that your rights are protected.