The death penalty – or capital punishment – is a government-sanctioned punishment for committing a crime. A person convicted and given the death penalty will be put to death as a punishment for that crime.
Only crimes deemed capital offenses are eligible to receive the death penalty. Crimes that fall into this category include murder, espionage, war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide, and treason. Nobody has been executed for a crime other than homicide since the Supreme Court re-instituted the death penalty in 1976. However, twenty-seven states allow for a person to be convicted of murder if they are involved in a crime involving loss of life, even if they were not directly responsible for the death.
A person convicted of a crime and sentenced to death is sent to death row, where inmates awaiting execution are housed. In most cases, convicts remain on death row for several years during appeals. According to a 2020 Bureau of Justice Statistics report, the average time between conviction and execution is 18.9 years.
The Death Penalty Divide
A Supreme Court ruling in 1972 banned the death penalty in the United States, ruling that the punishment, as applied, was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.
Today, the United States is divided when it comes to capital punishment. Twenty-four states allow the death penalty. Twenty-three states have abolished capital punishment altogether. Three states, California, Oregon, and Pennsylvania, have governor-issued moratoriums in place, halting executions in the state.
Of those states to have abolished the death penalty, Michigan became the first state to abolish it in 1846. Virginia officially abolished the death penalty as of July 1, 2021, making it the most recent state to abolish it.
On average, 26.3 people have been executed annually since 2000. Overall, executions are on the decline. In 2000, eighty-five inmates were executed across the country; in 2020, that number was seventeen.
States with the highest rates of execution
Texas leads the nation in executions, having put 574 inmates to death since 1976. On average, Texas executes 12 inmates annually, over four times more than the second-most state. Several factors lead to the higher use of the death penalty in Texas. The state lacks a public defender system for indigent convicts and relies on elected appellate judges, both factors that lead to higher levels of capital convictions. Furthermore, Texas inmates spend 40% less time on death row, an average of 11 years, prior to execution. As of June 2022, there are 194 inmates on death row in Texas.
Oklahoma has executed 116 individuals since 1976, an average of 2.5 executions yearly. As of June 2022, there are 43 inmates on death row in Oklahoma.
Virginia is the most recent state to abolish the death penalty, outlawing the punishment in July 2021. Before the abolition, the state had executed 113 people between 1976 and 2017, when the last execution took place.
Florida has executed 99 convicted people, including notorious serial killer Ted Bundy, since 1976. The state has the highest rate of new capital punishment convictions and the second-largest death row roster, with 303 inmates currently awaiting execution as of June 2022. Florida is also the most recent state to ban the practice of putting death row inmates into solitary confinement upon arrival at a correctional facility.
Missouri has executed 92 people since 1976. There are currently forty individuals awaiting punishment on Missouri's death row.
While California has executed thirteen people since 1976, and nobody since 2006, the state has the nation's largest death row roster, with over 600 inmates currently sitting on death row. Governor Newsom, who instituted a moratorium on executions in 2019, is working to dismantle the death row system and has plans to mainline these inmates into general population prisons.
Ten States with the Most Executions in the United States
Here are the ten states with the most executions since 1976. These ten states account for 84% of the executions in the country in that time. Texas (574) Oklahoma (116) Virginia (113) Florida (99) Missouri (92) Georgia (76) Alabama (69) Ohio (56) North Carolina (43) South Carolina (43)