There are 31 states in the US where the death penalty is legally upheld. Also known as capital punishment, the death penalty is a legal punishment also exercised by the federal government. The US is the only Western nation that currently applies the capital punishment, and it is one of the 57 countries in the world that use the punishment. The country was also the first to establish the lethal injection as an execution method. Five other nations have since adopted lethal injection. In the US, the legal administration of capital punishment constitutes five essential steps, and they are the prosecutor’s choice to pursue the death penalty, sentencing, direct review, state collateral review, and lastly federal habeas corpus. However, the accused can apply for clemency which can be approved or denied, the President or Governor may unilaterally abrogate or reduce a death sentence; this is more of an executive process rather than a judicial one.
The Death Penalty in the US
History of the Death Penalty in the US
Capital punishment traces its roots back to the beginning of the American colonies. Jane Campion was the first woman to be lawfully executed in 1632 which was 24 years after the first recorded male execution in the American colonies. However, between the years of 1967 and 1977, there was no execution in the US. The US Supreme Court struck down the death penalty statutes in the 1972 case of Furman vs. Georgia thus reducing all pending death sentences to life imprisonment at the time. In the end, most states in the US passed new capital punishment statutes. The death penalty’s legality was confirmed in 1976 by the US court in the Gregg vs. Georgia case. From 1976, more than 7,800 prisoners have been given the death sentence, 1,400 of whom have been executed. More than 2,900 are still on death row while 159 were exonerated before their execution.
Reinstatement of the Death Penalty
About 37 states in the US enacted new capital punishment statutes that tried addressing the concerns of Stewart and White in Furman, instead of abandoning it as per the 1972 ruling. Subsequently, other states responded by enacting compulsory capital punishment statutes prescribing a death sentence to anyone found guilty of specific forms of murder. Some states adopted ‘bifurcated’ procedures for trial and sentencing which had many procedural limitations on the ability of the jury to pronounce a death sentence designed to limit juror discretion.
Where is the Death Penalty Applied?
Capital punishment is applied for the crime of murder that comprises of an aggravating factor such as robbery, multiple victims, or rape. Depending on the state, one can be given a sentence of death penalty if they have committed aggravated murder or crimes against the state. However, aggravating factors for seeking death penalty vary significantly among the 31 states where capital punishment is legal. Some of the universal aggravating crimes include murder involving rape, the murder of an on-duty police officer and robbery-murder.
Number of Executions Since 1976
As of 1976 to January 1st, 2017, there have been 1,442 executions in the US. Out of the total executions three were by firing squad, three by hanging, 11 by gas inhalation, 158 by electrocution, and 1,267 by lethal injections. From 1976 the number of executions rose at a near-continuous pace, peaking at 98 in 1999. However, execution numbers have significantly lowered since then with the 20 executions in 2016 being the least since the year 1991.