In 1972 the United States Supreme Court imposed a moratorium on capital punishment on the grounds that “the arbitrary and capricious application of capital punishment in America represented cruel and unusual punishment.” In 1976 it permitted executions to start up again after states introduced reforms to address the concerns expressed by the Court. Since 1976 American courts sentenced over 4,600 people to death. Of these, 820 were executed and 102 were exonerated. This put the US in the same lethal category as China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.
However, these figures are very deceptive. First of all, twelve states (Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, West Virginia, Michigan, Iowa, Minnesota, and North Dakota) did not have a death penalty. Second, of the 38 states with a death penalty, six (New Hampshire, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Kansas, South Dakota) have had no executions since 1973. Third, of the 32 states that employed the death penalty after 1973, seventeen states used it fewer than ten times for a total of 59 executions in thirty years. Fourth, the fifteen states that used the death penalty ten or more times, account for over seventy percent of the executions. These states fall into several groups, but share a certain identity. There are those states with ten to 49 executions (North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas, Illinois, Arizona, California). There are those with fifty to one hundred executions (Virginia, Florida, Missouri, Oklahoma). And there are two states where you absolutely, positively did not want to get convicted of murder. Of the 820 executed, 289 (35 percent) were executed by Texas and thirteen by Delaware. The common feature of most of these states is that they are Southern states.
Even these figures disguise important differences. In Texas, county prosecutors have the freedom to seek and courts can impose the death penalty. The vast majority of counties in Texas imposed no death penalties after 1973. So whence come the high totals for Texas (and hence for the United States as a whole)? Five urban counties accounted for 143 of the 289 death penalty cases: Nueces County (Corpus Christi) 10 executions; Bexar County (San Antonio) 18 executions; Tarrant County (Fort Worth) 22 executions; Dallas County (Dallas) 26 executions; and Harris County (Houston) 67 executions). Why are some small areas so bloody-minded?
Another distinction is temporal. While executions became legal once more in 1976, virtually none took place until 1987. [This probably reflected the delays introduced by extensive appeals.] Between 1994 and 1999, the number of executions accelerated.
What has happened since 2003? Actually, since 1999 the tide has been falling. DNA evidence began to become available. Deference to DNA evidence now sets a high bar for a death sentence. “Life-without-parole” emerged as an acceptable alternative, in the US if not in Scandinavia. Pharmaceutical companies have fled the lethal injection market. Six states have abolished the death penalty and the governors of two other states have imposed moratoriums. The number of death sentences issued each year has fallen from 300 in 1996 to 72 in 2014; the number of executions has fallen from 98 in 1999 to 35 in 2014. The geographical distribution of death sentences and executions remains pretty much as before.
Similarly, the number of death sentences in China also has fallen—from 24,000 (1983) to 12,000 (2002) to a mere 2,400 (2014).
Jen Joynt and Carrie Shuchart, “The Nation in Numbers: Mortal Justice,” Atlantic, March 2003, pp. 40-41.
Ashby Jones, “Executions, Death Penalties Hit Multiyear Lows in U.S.,” WSJ, 18 December 2014.