You are here: Home > Human Rights Statistics > Statistics on Capital Punishment in the U.S.
1. Death penalty laws in the U.S.
2. Numbers of executions, trends
3. Public support
4. Death row numbers
5. Methods of execution
7. Racial discrimination in the use of capital punishment
8. Numbers by age, gender and occupation of the executed
9. Numbers by type of crime
The U.S. is one of the few developed countries still allowing and performing executions. However, there are important regional differences within the U.S. The death penalty is currently a legal sentence in 33 states and in the federal civilian and military legal systems. 18 states (as well as Washington, D.C.) have banned its use as of 2013 (in 2013, Maryland became the 18th US state to abolish the death penalt). Six of those – Maryland, Connecticut, Illinois, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York – have abolished the death penalty in the years since 2003.
The following seventeen U.S. states do not currently have an enforceable death penalty statute:
10 of the states that do allow the penalty have not carried out an execution in 12 years or more.
This means that 29 of 53 jurisdictions in the U.S. (50 states, the District of Columbia, the Federal Government, and the Military) either do not have the death penalty or do no longer carry out executions. If you look at only the last 5 years rather than the last 12, then 32 instead of 28 U.S. jurisdictions have stopped executions either de facto or de iure.
Many states that are abolitionist in practice but not in law have not carried out an execution since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 (the Supreme Court briefly suspended capital punishment from 1972 until 1976). Only 12 states carried out an execution in 2010, and only 7 states – mostly in the South – carried out more than 1 (source). Over one-third of all U.S. executions since 1976 took place in just one state — Texas. That’s a total of 481 people killed by that state.
California will soon be voting on replacing its death penalty [update: the vote failed]. California is abolitionist in practice, which explains the huge number of inmates on death row in the state. California’s death row costs taxpayers $184m a year.
(source, an interactive version of this map is here, where you can also see the method of execution and the date of the last execution for individual states)
This map is more up-to-date:
In 2012, the United States ranked fifth for the highest number of executions, behind China, Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia but ahead of Yemen and the Sudan. Some older data for the US:
Texas executes most people, but on a per capita basis, Oklahoma leads the pack.
Here’s a map showing the numbers of executions by US State (Connecticut is still shown as retentionist but this is no longer up-to-date):
Here’s another version of the map showing the numbers of executions since 1976:
However, it’s better to look at the numbers execution per population (per million in this case):
And these are the numbers for the whole of U.S. history:
There’s yet another map here giving the numbers of executions by state.
A word about the evolution: the number of death sentences in the U.S. has dropped substantially over the last decade:
- 328 in 1994
- 111 in 2008
- 78 in 2011, representing the lowest figure since the 1970s
The number of executions has dropped as well:
However, as stated before, it’s better to look at the numbers of executions per capita. Given the growth of the U.S. population, the downward trend of executions is even more pronounced when related to the total population:
This graph shows both the sentences and executions becoming less numerous (gross numbers, not per capita):
The time between sentence and execution in the U.S. becomes longer. In fact, only 15% of those sentenced to death since the US death penalty was reinstated in 1976 have actually been executed. Since 1973, California for instance has issued 927 death sentences but executed only 13 prisoners (source).
It’s not just sentences and executions that went down in the U.S. – public support for the death penalty is also waning, especially when the people who are polled can choose the alternative of life imprisonment without parole:
Given the racial distortions in the imposition of the death penalty (see below), it’s not surprising that African Americans are generally less enthusiastic about it all:
In the U.S., the average length of time spent on death row is 15 years. In 2009, of 3173 death-row prisoners, 113 had been there for more than 29 years.
From 2000 to 2011 there were, on average, five death-row exonerations a year in the United States, according to the Death Penalty Information Centre. North Carolina alone saw three exonerations in six months in 2008 (source).
The most common method in recent decades has been lethal injection. The following chart shows, for the entire history of the US, the numbers as well as the methods of executions (there was a Supreme Court enforced moratorium in the U.S. in the seventies):
(click image to enlarge)
The U.S. no longer carries out public executions (contrary to countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, North Korea and Somalia). This was the last public execution in the U.S. As of 1995, the United States Supreme Court ruled the televised executions of prisoners unconstitutional.
Some more information about the methods of execution in the U.S.:
Perhaps a more up-to-date map is this one:
(source, click on the image to enlarge)
Here are the actual executions by gas chamber after the moratorium in the 1970s:
I think only Idaho and Oklahoma still use the firing squad. There recently was a convict in Utah who chose to be executed by firing squad. The U.S. Supreme Court, which reinstated the death penalty in 1977, banned the use of the firing squad in 2004. It allowed only a handful of inmates already on death row to opt for the method.
And this is the map for electrocution:
It’s difficult to conclusively demonstrate the existence or non-existence of a deterrence effect because correlations unearthed (or not) in statistical analysis do not imply causation and also because those who refrain from committing crimes due to a supposed deterrent effect of the death penalty will by definition never show up in any statistic (although the start of capital punishment should imply the start of a deterrent effect – if any – and should produce a downward movement in the number of crimes).
This Amnesty International graph shows that murder rates in US states that apply the death penalty are higher than the rates in other states:
So this would indicate that deterrence doesn’t work. But we can only be sure of this when the death penalty will no longer be applied for many years to come in the states which apply it currently, and when the murder rate after abolition doesn’t go up. But even if all this happens, this can be the result of other causes.
This other graph points in the opposite direction:
However, this graph is somewhat deceptive, as I’ve argued here.
There’s a paper here presenting the results of a survey among leading criminologists regarding their opinion on the deterrent effect of capital punishment in the U.S.
The findings demonstrate an overwhelming consensus among these criminologists that the empirical research conducted on the deterrence question strongly supports the conclusion that the death penalty does not add deterrent effects to those already achieved by long imprisonment.
More about deterrence is here.
A particular problem with executions in the U.S., but probably in many other capital punishment countries as well, is racial discrimination. Whereas U.S. citizens from African-American descent make up only 12 or 13% of the population, they represent 34% of the executions since the reintroduction in 1977, and more than half since the beginning of the U.S.:
The racial discrepancy is even larger when you look at the people on death row:
The race of the murder victim also plays a role: a murder of a white person is more likely to result in capital punishment for the perpetrator.
No juvenile offender has been executed in the U.S. since 2003. In March 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty for people under 18 at the time of the crime was “cruel and unusual punishment”. The Roper v. Simmons decision spared the lives of over 70 child offenders on U.S. death rows (source).
The death penalty today is reserved for the crime of murder, but that wasn’t always the case. More than 30 different types of crime were once punishable by death:
More on capital punishment in the U.S. is here.