Death Penalty: 34 States Permit Executions


By every measure, the death penalty in the United States has been declining steadily since executions peaked in 1999, and the trend likely will continue in 2005.


Plummeting crime rates and recent revelations of innocent men being sentenced to death have eroded public support for capital punishment. Since the 1970s, 119 people in 25 states have been released from death row based on new exculpatory evidence, including two dozen in the past three years. Death sentences have dropped by 54 percent and executions by 40 percent since 1999, with significant reductions in all states that allow capital punishment, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit group that has been critical of capital punishment in practice.

Several recent court decisions also have narrowed the scope of the death penalty. The U.S. Supreme Court outlawed the execution of juveniles in March, sparing the lives of 72 juvenile offenders waiting on death row nationwide. This was the high court's first decision on the death penalty since 2002, when it banned the execution of the severely retarded.

 At the state level, death penalty statutes in New York and Kansas were ruled unconstitutional by those states' high courts in 2004, and executions have been suspended in Illinois by a moratorium and in New Jersey by a temporary injunction by the state's high court. That leaves 34 states currently permitting executions.

In New York, the Democrat-controlled state Assembly defeated an attempt to reinstate the death penalty on April 12, 2005, making New York the first state to abandon the death penalty since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated it in 1976. This action, which came just 10 years after the state legalized capital punishment, put New York at the forefront of a list of states where politicians have stepped away from supporting capital punishment.

Death Penalty Timeline (Links to U.S. Supreme Court decisions provided by Cornell Law School's Supreme Court Collection)

1972 - Furman v. Georgia: U.S. Supreme Court effectively voids 40 state death penalty statutes and suspends capital punishment, ruling that death sentences are handed down arbitrarily, violating the Eighth Amendment prohibition against "cruel and unusual punishment."

1976 - Gregg v. Georgia: U.S. Supreme Court allows states to rewrite their death penalty statutes. Florida reinstates the death penalty within five months, followed shortly by 34 other states. Kansas and New York reinstate the death penalty in 1994 and 1995, respectively.

1977 - Gary Gilmore is executed by firing squad in Utah on Jan.17 - first person executed since death penalty was reinstated.

1977 - Oklahoma becomes the first state to adopt lethal injection as a means of execution.

1977 - Coker v. Georgia: U.S. Supreme Court prohibits executions for rape when the victim is not killed.

1986 - Ford v. Wainwright: U.S. Supreme Court rules that execution of the mentally insane is unconstitutional.

1988 - Thompson v. Oklahoma: U.S. Supreme Court rules that execution of offenders who were 15 or younger at the time of their crime is unconstitutional.

1989 - Stanford v. Kentucky, and Wilkins v. Missouri: U.S. Supreme Court rules that Eighth Amendment does not prohibit the death penalty for crimes committed at age 16 or 17.

1989 - Penry v. Lynaugh: U.S. Supreme Court rules that executing mentally retarded people does not violate the Eighth Amendment.

2000 - Illinois Gov. George Ryan orders moratorium on executions and appoints commission to study flaws in the state's death penalty system.

2002 - Ring v. Arizona: U.S. Supreme Court rules that juries, not judges, should decide sentence of death.

2002 - Atkins v. Virginia: U.S. Supreme Court reverses its 1989 decision in Penry v. Lynaugh and prohibits execution of the severely retarded based on the Eighth Amendment.

2003 - Illinois Gov. George Ryan commutes death sentences of all 167 inmates on the state's death row before leaving office in January.

2004 - New York's death penalty statute declared unconstitutional by state's highest court in June. Kansas Supreme Court voids its death penalty law in December.

2005 - Roper v. Simmons - U.S. Supreme Court, reversing its 1989 decision, rules March 1 that executing juvenile offenders who were under 18 at the time of their crimes is unconstitutional.

Legislation aimed at either repealing the death penalty or imposing moratoriums on executions has been introduced in at least two dozen states in 2005. Only proposals in Connecticut and New Mexico have come to a vote, and both were narrowly defeated.


North Carolina lawmakers are actively considering a bill that would impose a moratorium on executions and establish a commission to investigate the state's death penalty system. The legislation was introduced in response to the recent exonerations of five death row inmates. In New Jersey, where the court ordered state corrections officials to change the way lethal injections are administered, Acting Gov. Richard Codey (D) has called on the state Legislature to pass a moratorium against executions.

Illinois' moratorium, the only one in the country, was imposed by former Gov. George Ryan, a Republican, in 2000. Ryan sparked a national furor when he commuted the death sentences of all 167 Illinois inmates on death row before leaving office in 2003, citing a state investigation that uncovered police corruption and racial bias in the state's capital punishment system. The Illinois Legislature has passed several reform measures intended to persuade current Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich to lift the moratorium, but he has said the system is far from fixed.

These events follow a trend by lawmakers and the judiciary over the past 30 years to narrow the scope of the death penalty by tightening state sentencing statutes and banning the execution of specific groups of people, including the mentally insane, severely retarded and juvenile defendants.

However, a majority of Americans still support executions as the ultimate punishment, and the nation as a whole is far from abolishing the death penalty.

Constitutional experts say the current U.S. Supreme Court is unlikely to accept any cases seeking to overturn the death penalty system. Although executions are rare at the federal level, the Clinton and Bush administrations have greatly expanded the potential use of capital punishment for some drug and terrorism crimes. And former U.S. Attorney General John D. Ashcroft directed his prosecutors to seek the death penalty in many cases, sometimes overruling local prosecutors who had decided against it.

At the state and local level, many prosecutors, victims' advocates and lawmakers remain staunch supporters of the death penalty, which they view as a necessary and effective deterrent to crime. Kansas officials are appealing the state court decision against their death penalty system in federal courts.

Bills to reinstate the death penalty have been introduced this year in many of the 12 states that lack it, including in Hawaii and Iowa, although neither of those bills came up for a vote.

Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) has pledged to propose legislation this year to reinstate the death penalty there. Romney commissioned a task force of forensic and legal experts last year to craft a statute that would execute only those killers whose guilt is not in doubt. The commission issued 10 recommendations to safeguard against wrongful convictions, including imposing stricter requirements for scientific evidence, such as DNA and fingerprints, and raising the bar for a death penalty sentence from the normal legal standard of guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt" to a finding of "no doubt about the defendant's guilt."

This "Backgrounder" is a work in progress and will be updated as warranted. You can find a great deal of information on the death penalty, including statistics, reports, analysis and commentary, on the following Web sites. will list other helpful resources as we find them.

The Death Penalty Information Center
A nonprofit group funded by grants and private contributions, provides a wealth of facts and statistics, issues reports critical of the death penalty.
A Web site maintained by Justice For All, an advocacy group lobbying for victims' rights and funded by private and corporate membership, tracks death penalty related issues and legislation. Go to its Death Penalty Links page for comprehensive links to dozens of related Web sites.

National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty
Created in 1976 after the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty and funded by private donations and grants, NCADP supports grassroots lobbying against capital punishment. Its Web site provides news and statistics, also tracks pending executions.

1000+ Death Penalty Links
Large collection of death penalty links compiled on the Web site of Steven D. Stewart, the prosecuting attorney for Clark County, Ind., who supports the death penalty.


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