Death Penalty


Leg tie-downs on the gurney in the execution chamber at the Oregon State Penitentiary, in Salem, Oregon, 2011. In most states, the race of the victim remains the strongest predictor of whether a defendant will be sentenced to death. (Associated Press.)

The death penalty in the United States has a long history of racial bias and discrimination, and many consider it a direct descendant of lynching. In most states, the race of the victim is the greatest predictor of whether a crime will result in a death sentence. While more than 1400 people have been put to death in America since 1976, and nearly 3000 people currently are on death row nationwide, support for and use of capital punishment has steadily declined in recent years.

Since peaking in the late 1990s, total executions have decreased every year. Meanwhile, 156 individuals on death row have been proven innocent since 1977. For every 10 individuals executed in the United States, one person has been exonerated, which raises concerns about the reliability of capital convictions. Additionally, in 2014, lethal injection led to the botched executions of Dennis McGuire in Ohio, Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma, and Joseph Wood in Arizona. These cases spurred pharmaceutical companies to refuse to supply execution drugs, and some state governments turned to illegal sources.

As legal advocates continue to fight for national abolition and argue that the death penalty is unconstitutional, many states have responded to concerns about the unreliablility and excessive cost of the death penalty by ending or suspending capital punishment. Colorado, Washington, Pennsylvania, and Oregon have moratoriums on the death penalty. Since 2007, New Jersey, New York, New Mexico, Illinois, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, and Nebraska have abolished capital punishment, but there is an active effort to reinstate it in Nebraska.