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Capital Punishment: Morality, Politics, and Policy

Current Status

As of 1998, Amnesty International reported that some sixty nations worldwide (including all western European countries) counted as "abolitionist for all crimes." Another fifteen countries were listed as "abolitionist for ordinary crimes only," that is, these countries retained the death penalty only for "exceptional crimes" such as those provided by military law. Another twenty-eight countries were listed as "abolitionist de facto," because although their statutes still authorized the death penalty in certain cases, no executions had been carried out for at least a decade. Finally, ninety-four countries—mostly in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia—were listed as retaining and using the death penalty for murder and other felonies. Interpreters of the international scene have insisted that there is a slow but steady rejection of the death penalty worldwide, a trend that isolates the United States and conspicuously prevents it from exercising international leadership in protecting human rights, as these rights are increasingly defined under international human rights law.

By 1998, in the United States, thirteen states (and the District of Columbia) had abolished the death penalty: Alaska, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. Since 1977 each of thirty states has carried out at least one execution.

Among the death penalty states (and the federal government), thirty-two use lethal injection to carry out the death penalty, eleven use the electric chair, seven use the gas chamber, four use hanging, and three use firing squad. Fourteen of these jurisdictions give the prisoner a choice between death by lethal injection and one of the other four methods.

Early in 1999 the LDF reported a total of 3,565 persons under death sentence in thirty-seven states (twenty-nine of these prisoners were awaiting execution under federal law, including eight under military law). By race, whites constituted 56 percent of the total, African Americans 35 percent; other nonwhites (American Indians, Asians, Hispanics) totaled 9 percent. The vast majority (99 percent) were male. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that as of the end of 1998, 65 percent of the nation's death row population were recidivist felons with a prior criminal record, including 9 percent who had a conviction of some form of criminal homicide. During the 1990s, the nation's death row population grew on the average at a rate of about 250 prisoners per year. The average length of time spent under death sentence prior to execution was about ten years. Of the 6,424 persons sentenced to death between 1973 and 1998, more than a third (38 percent) were not executed; some died awaiting execution, others committed suicide, and still others were commuted or resentenced by court order.

Executions in the 1990s went from a low of fourteen in 1991 to a high of seventy-four in 1997, for an annual average of about forty. The nation's high-point in executions during the twentieth century was reached in 1935, however, when 199 offenders were executed. During the 1930s the percentage of convicted murderers executed was far higher than in the 1990s.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawCapital Punishment: Morality, Politics, and Policy - The Death Penalty In America, 1793–1982, Current Status, Capital Crimes, Public Opinion, Administration