Capital Punishment in the U.S.

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Today, 38 states, the federal government and the U.S. military officially sanction capital punishment. Between 1977 and September 2006, 1074 people were executed within U.S. borders. The vast majority of capital cases are carried out by the states, with Texas leading with more than a third of all executions. Kansas, New Jersey, New Hampshire, New York, South Dakota and the military have not executed anyone since 1976.

Colonial Era

According to a record called the Espy file, 14,634 people were executed in the United States between 1608 and 1991.This number is known to be an underestimate, because records from the Department of Justice list more executions than the Espy file's modern numbers, and record-keeping during the colonial era was less than foolproof.


Historically, America has offered several methods of execution, some of which survive to this day. Records indicate that hanging was the most common method in early history. Other lesser-used methods included hanging in chains (letting a body decompose publicly), burning at the stake, pressing, breaking on a wheel and bludgeoning.

Today, the most common method by far is lethal injection, which is favored over the former leading method of electrocution. The gas chamber and hanging are also allowed in some states. Utah is the only state to offer an alternative, the firing squad, last used in the 1996 execution of John Albert Taylor.


From 1973 to 1976, the Supreme Court issued a moratorium on capital punishment, following the landmark case Furman v. Georgia, in which the death penalty was found unconstitutional on the grounds of the eighth amendment's ban on "cruel and unusual punishment." This argument is used by many opponents of capital punishment today. Then, in the 1977 case Gregg v. Georgia, the court upheld a trial procedure which separated the guilt-or-innoncence and sentencing phases of a capital punishment trial. Use of the death penalty resumed with the Jan. 17, 1977, execution of Gary Gilmore in Utah.

Supreme Court Decisions

Other Supreme Court decisions have limited capital punishment's application to certain categories of criminals. In 2002's Atkins v. Virginia, the Court banned execution of the mentally retarded. In 2005's Roper v. Simmons, the minimum age for a criminal to be sentenced to death was set to 18 years.

Hear the announcement of the Supreme Court's opinion in Roper V. Simmons (4.36 MB; 18 minutes):

Death Row Today

Currently, there are 3,366 inmates on death row, according to NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund statistics.Sixty-seven percent of capital convictions are eventually overturned on appeal, a process which often stretches over several years. While 7 percent of those whose sentences are overturned are aquitted, 10 percent are tried again and resentenced to death.