An Overview of Death Penalty in the United States

Introduction: The death penalty, also known as capital punishment, is the practice of executing individuals who have been convicted of certain serious crimes, typically murder. The United States has a complex and controversial history with the death penalty, involving legal, ethical, and societal considerations. This posting provides an overview of the death penalty in the United States, including its history, current status, arguments for and against its use,  recent trends. and a selection of death penalty, criminal sentencing  Supreme Court cases compiled by Justia, and a list of references for the benefit of those who would like to pursue this subject in greater depth and detail.

Historical Context: The death penalty has been a part of the U.S. legal system since colonial times.  The first recorded execution in the new colonies was believed to be that of Captain George Kendall in the Jamestown colony of Virginia in 1608. Over the years, the application of the death penalty has evolved  with changes in methods of execution and legal standards. Use of the death penalty in the United States rose gradually during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth  centuries with a sharp rise in the twentieth century until 1972 when a moratorium was established by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Furman v. Georgia.

Modern Era and Legal Framework: In 1972 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Furman v. Georgia that the death penalty, as it was being applied at the time, was unconstitutional due to its arbitrary nature. Subsequently, many states revised their laws to address concerns of arbitrariness and excessive severity. In 1976 the Court reinstated the death penalty with the Gregg v. Georgia decision, in which it as held that death penalty for murder was not, in and of itself, a cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.

Currently, the death penalty is legal in 24 states, while 23 states and the District of Columbia have abolished it. In the remaining states, the death penalty is effectively suspended or not practiced due to various reasons. Three states have imposed moratoriums (but still officially have the death penalty). Since January 16, 2021, no federal executions have been performed. On July 1, 2021, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland placed a moratorium on all federal executions, pending review of policy and procedures. There are 41 offenders officially remaining on death row.

Arguments for the Death Penalty:

  1. Deterrence: Proponents argue that the death penalty serves as a deterrent to potential criminals, preventing them from committing heinous crimes due to the fear of severe punishment.
  2. Retribution: The idea of just punishment for the most serious crimes is a central argument. Supporters believe that the death penalty provides a sense of closure and justice for victims’ families.
  3. Public Opinion: Public support for the death penalty often stems from a belief that some crimes are so heinous that only the ultimate punishment is appropriate.

Arguments against the Death Penalty:

  1. Risk of Wrongful Execution: The potential for human error in the legal system can lead to the wrongful execution of innocent individuals, which undermines the credibility of the justice system.
  2. Ineffectiveness as a Deterrent: Many studies have failed to establish a conclusive link between the death penalty and a decrease in crime rates. Other factors play a more significant role in crime prevention.
  3. Ethical Concerns: Critics argue that the death penalty violates the right to life and constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, especially if the execution methods are inhumane.
  4. Racial and Socioeconomic Disparities: Some believe there is evidence of racial and socioeconomic bias in the application of the death penalty, raising concerns about fairness and equality under the law.

Recent Trends: In recent years, there has been a decline in the use of the death penalty in the United States. Factors contributing to this decline include concerns about wrongful convictions, difficulties in obtaining execution drugs, evolving public opinion, and legal challenges regarding execution methods.

Selection of Death Penalty and Criminal Sentencing Supreme Court Cases, Compiled by Justia.

Conclusion: The death penalty remains a contentious issue in the United States, reflecting a complex interplay of legal, moral, and societal factors. While some states continue to actively use capital punishment, the overall trend has been moving towards reduced use or abolition. The ongoing debates about its morality, effectiveness, and potential for error ensure that the future of the death penalty in the United States will remain a topic of intense discussion.



Case Summaries: Death Penalty Information Center.

Arguments For and Against the Death Penalty: Death Penalty Information Center.

Capital Punishment, Our Duty or Our Doom?: Claire Andre and Manuel Velnsquez. Santa Clara University.

State by State Death Penalty Information: Death Penalty Information Center.

Eight Reasons Why the United States Still has the Death Penalty: Matthew Robinson, Appalachian State University.

Why Some States Retain the Death Penalty but Never Use It: Austin Sarat, Verdict.

Idaho Judge Opens the Door for an Exploration of the Psychological Cruelty of Capital Punishment: Austin  Sarat, Verdict.

The End of the Death Penalty?: Harvard Law School: Elaine McCardle, Harvard Law Bulletin.

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