The Death Penalty in the US - Key Facts
|Current Death Row Population: 3,189
|| Executions in 2012: 18
|Race: White 44%, Black 42%, Latino 12%, Other 2%
|| Executions in 2011: 43
|Gender: Male 98%, Female 2%
|| Executions in 2010: 46
* Statistics last updated 10 May 2012
The Death Penalty in Context
At present the USA ranks 5th in the world for the number of executions carried out annually. It is outranked only by China, Iran, North Korea and Yemen.
So far, 16 US states have abolished the death penalty. Of the 34 that retain capital punishment, only 20 have executed anyone in the last five years. Broadly speaking, use of the death penalty is declining. Figures from the last hundred years show a peak in the mid-thirties, when the US was executing almost 200 people annually, followed by a gradual reduction through the fifties and sixties. During the late sixties a number of legal challenges were made to the constitutionality of the death penalty and executions temporarily stopped.
In 1972 three cases (Furman v. Georgia, Jackson v. Georgia and Branch v. Texas), known collectively as Furman v. Georgia, came before the US Supreme Court arguing that the death penalty was cruel and unusual and violated the Eighth Amendment. The argument was successful and led to the Supreme Court effectively voiding the death penalty statutes of 40 states. This resulted in a general suspension of the death penalty while legislators across the country set about re-writing their statutes.
The key issue in Furman was the complete freedom given to the jury on the issue of sentencing and the fact that this could result in arbitrary decisions. This was addressed in the new statutes by the provision of sentencing guidelines and the introduction of aggravating and mitigating factors. The process was referred to as guided discretion and the first new statutes were approved by the Supreme Court in 1976. Again, it was a collection of three cases that led to the decision: Gregg v. Georgia, Jurek v. Texas and Proffitt v. Florida.
Although the death penalty was effectively reinstated in 1976, it was the following year before the first execution under the new statutes took place. Gary Gilmore was executed by firing squad in Utah in January 1977. He had abandoned his appeals and instead put his efforts into ensuring his execution would be carried out as quickly as possible. Despite, or perhaps because of, Gilmore's unexpected enthusiasm, there were no further executions that year and none the following year. It was the mid-eighties before execution rates started to rise again. They reached a peak of 98 in 1999 and then dropped to an average of 44 over the last five years.
The following sections outline some of the remaining key issues relating to the administration of capital punishment in the US.