The Death Penalty: History and Statistics in the US


The death penalty, or capital punishment, is considered to be a person’s execution by the state law as a criminal punishment. This type of punishment takes place when the crime is capital and requires death according to state law. In different countries, the death penalty has various meanings, and such kind of punishment is used for different crimes. For example, in some countries, the death penalty can be reserved as treason or murder punishment, while in others is considered to be a penalty for some religion’s crimes or drug trafficking. Nowadays, the death penalty is not so widely spread as it was several centuries ago; a lot of countries of Europe and Pacific states abolished this kind of punishment; it is connected with the culture of the state and with its state law.

History of Capital Punishment

Beginning in 1608, the notion of the death penalty appeared in the USA. In this period, this type of penalty covered whole groups of people being hanged for national murders. Thus, for example, more than 15 thousand people were convicted in the period to 1991. A group of soldiers was put to death in 1916-1999; their number was about 135 people. One of the largest executions in the history of the death penalty took place in 1862 when about 38 people were convicted to death for rape and murder in the War of Dakota. The capital punishment of this group of people was simultaneously and took place in Minnesota. (The Death Penalty Information Center, 2008)

One more great capitalization in the history of the death penalty was the hanging of a group of people. This time the death penalty touched 13 soldiers of Afro-American origin; the case was connected with the Houston Riot. (Brian, 2008)

It is important to stress that the majority of capital punishments were produced at the time of war and involved the crimes of ethnic minority defendants. This fact put the background for the development of the contemporary attitude to this kind of punishment and its introduction in modern state law. The roots of capital punishment are closely connected with the tradition of hanging for capital crimes; though it is practiced in a different form, some prints from its history are present in contemporary law.

Nowadays the capital punishment is abolished in most countries of the world, but the USA is among those lands which are considered to be top executioners; about 90% of all executions take place here. (Oliveria, 2008)

The Death Penalty in the USA

The death penalty is considered to be a legal punishment in many countries of the world. Speaking about the introduction of this kind of penalty in the United States, it is important to stress that it is rarely used in practice; it can be considered only in the case of capital crimes.

According to state jurisdiction, types of crimes which subject to capital punishment vary under the circumstances. Thus, treason is considered to be a capital crime in major jurisdictions. Aggravated rape and kidnapping are punished by the death penalty in Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma, and South California. According to the Supreme Court of Connecticut, drug trafficking resulting in death should also be punished by the death penalty. In California, such crime as perjury is considered to be capital. (The Death Penalty in America: Current Controversies, 2008)

The US Supreme Court’s decision as to the death penalty introduction highlighted the fact that this type of penalty should be used in the case of violent and cruel crimes; this decision came into force in 1976.

According to some resources, over 1000 people from the USA were penalized since 1977. It caused public objections connected with the human rights violation and resulted in the creation of the anti-death-penalty legislation.

Some states were against the death penalty introduction in cases when the victim’s life was not taken. And taking into account this fact in 2008 the capital punishment is used only in case of murder. (California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, 2008)

Wrongful Execution

One of the biggest and grave disadvantages of the death penalty introduction is the possibility of the wrongful accusation that is when a person being innocent is put to death by the death penalty according to the state law verdict. According to the statistical data, a great number of people worldwide were put to death by mistakable evidence.

The Law Commission of every state has always considered the fact that sometimes a person that is put to death can be innocent. Even nowadays, when the Court System became more powerful and thoroughly practiced, the risks of wrongful convictions are great enough. According to the researched information, about six defendants among seventy-five are put to death with the lack of enough evidence every year. (Mateo, 1998)

A vivid example of wrongful execution can be observed in the case of Wayne Felker, who was executed being innocent. He was put on trial being accused of a woman’s disappearance in Georgia, USA. Her body was found by police, and Felker was accused of the crime. The woman’s autopsy was conducted by an unskilled technician, and it resulted in wrong evidence of the crime. When the defendant was convicted, the crime became clearer, and the lawyers managed to present testimony proving his innocence. The errors made in the process of trial and in the passing of the verdict were closely connected with the wrong autopsy and the results of the DNA. Thus, the case, which lasted almost twenty years, required a new trial, and Felker, who was convicted, appeared to be completely innocent and wrongly executed by the law. (Kreuter, 2004)

One more example connected with the wrong execution took place in 2004 in Texas. The wrong execution of Cameron Willingham was connected with the events of 1991 when the fire took the lives of Cameron’s three small daughters. He was convicted and put to death. Only several years later, the forensic evidence proved his innocence and cleared up the real reason for the fire connected with the blaze starting. (Kreuter, 2004)

It is the main reason why many states worldwide abolished the death penalty as a punishment for crime. Instead of this, they introduced the punishment of life-term imprisonment, which is considered to be more effective and unmistakable. But according to some states law, the punishment of life imprisonment is not considered to be human enough as it put a person to life martyrdom which is crueler than the death penalty. (The Death Penalty: Its Fairness and Morality, 2008)

The Death Penalty and the Crime. Proportionality

According to the recent changes the capital punishment should be proportional to the committed crime. The Supreme Court searched some factors and came to a conclusion that proportional analysis should include the following:

  • Consideration of offenses grave level;
  • Penalty stringency;
  • The punishment of the criminals by the jurisdiction;
  • To clear up the way how different jurisdictions punish the same type of crime. (Lester, 2002)

Thus, according to the law of some American States, the raping of a woman is not considered to be capital punishment, and the death penalty cannot be used in this case because it contradicts the requirements of proportionality. This decision was taken after the research of the most rape cases on the international level since 2000.

Besides, since 2008, the crimes connected with child-raping are not considered to be capital and deserve no death penalty, but for the cases when the victim is killed. The Supreme Court introduced this change, and it was confirmed on the international level. (Mears, 2008)

People not eligible for the Death Penalty

According to the Supreme Court and to the national law, there are groups of people who cannot be convicted to the death penalty. These people are related to the following groups of people:

  • Criminals with mental diseases cannot be put to death as it is considered to be a cruel unusual type of punishment and violates the general law being too severe and unjust;
  • Juvenile offenders cannot be convicted of the death penalty as well. It is closely connected with the fact that most teenagers are irresponsible and have lack maturity. The punishment for teenagers was diminished as they can be easily influenced, and their character is not formed yet.

Thus, according to the law, not all people are sentenced to death even if the crime is capital and deserves it. (Kreuter, 2004)

Women and the Death Penalty

According to the research of Victor Streib, who is considered to be a member of the University School of Law, women are not so often put to death as men, though the level of crimes can be similar. About 12% of murders are women, but only 2% of them can receive capital punishment. (Wilder, 2008)

It is more difficult for the jury to pass a verdict when the defendant is female, while the factors of the crime are judged differently. The jury used to make some moral arguments against the death penalty received by the woman. According to Streib, the introduction of the death penalty is not an effective method for the crime level reduction, especially among the woman. It is connected with the fact that this type of punishment is not so widely spread among females. There were a lot of cases when a female killer was not put to death, as the situations were considered to be “odd,” and they received imprisonment. (Strieb, 2005)


The research carried out showed that the introduction of the death penalty in various countries is treated differently. It is connected with the law peculiarities and the jurisdictions of the country. As it was shown the capital punishment is not the most effective method of crime reduction as the lack of evidence can result in the wrongful execution of innocent people.

It should be mentioned that the court system must be more thoroughly developed worldwide for it to introduce capital punishment. The circumstances, the factors, and the state of the defendant should always be taken into account not to make a grave mistake and sentence an innocent person to death.


California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice. Administration of the Death Penalty. 2008.

Friedan, Brian. The Death Penalty. The world is Watching. 2008.

Kreuter, William. The Innocent Executed. Washington Inf. Mag. 2004.

Lester, David. Suicide on Death Row. Journal of Forensic Sciences. Vol. 47. pp. 1108-1111. 2002.

Legislature votes to Abolish Death Penalty. MSNBC News Services. 2007.

Mears, Bill. Child Rapists can’t be executed. CNN, 2008.

Mateo, Relin. Six Amendment Death Penalty. Plea Bargaining. 1998.

Oliveria, Nancy. Italian Catholics Changed My Perspective on the Death Penalty. 2008.

The Death Penalty in America: Current Controversies. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology. 2008.

The Death Penalty: Its Fairness and Morality. The University of Memphis Law Review. 2008.

Strieb, Victor. Death Penalty for Female Offenders. University Publication. 2005.

Wilder, Mike. Professor Studies Women On Death Row. Times-News, 2008.

International Polls and Studies. The Death Penalty Information Center. 2008.

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1. LawBirdie. "The Death Penalty: History and Statistics in the US." March 23, 2023.


LawBirdie. "The Death Penalty: History and Statistics in the US." March 23, 2023.