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The death penalty in the US and the need for change

For the 11th consecutive year, the United States has remained the only country in the Americas to carry out executions. The use of capital punishment by developed countries has fallen significantly in recent times with no member of the Council of Europe carrying out an execution since 1997. 

Therefore, the question must remain, why do many US states maintain retentionist attitudes with regard to their use of capital punishment?

The death penalty in the US

The use of the death penalty has long been ingrained in American society, with its use as a legal penalty a part of the US judicial system since its conception in 1789.

The use of capital punishment in the US has not always been considered constitutional. This is demonstrated by the 1972 Supreme Court case Furman v. Georgia where it was declared unconstitutional as it was then applied. The court ruled the death penalty a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishments, due to the inconsistency of its use, and suggested states write new capital punishment laws that provide clear standards for the imposition of death sentences. In the following years, many states created new laws that clearly described crimes punishable by death and allowed the jury to consider mitigating and aggravating circumstances as part of sentencing.

In more recent memory, the United States government began its resumption of federal executions in 2020 after a 17-year hiatus; with seven taking place since July. This accounts for half of the executions carried out throughout the US in 2020. In addition to this, the US government has put eight people to death since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976, with 2020 seeing a substantial increase as five people were placed on death row by federal authorities.

Capital punishment is still applicable as a legal penalty in 25 states, seven of which carried out executions last year (Texas, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Missouri and South Dakota), with Texan courts responsible for 40%. 

Race and the death penalty

The use of capital punishment in the United States has also come under fire for its noticeable racial biases. In the modern era, when executions have been carried out exclusively for murder, 75% of cases involve the murder of white victims, even though blacks and whites are about equally likely to be victims of murder, according to a report conducted by the Death Penalty Information Center. 

Ngozi Ndulue, the Death Penalty Information Center’s Senior Director of Research and Special Projects and the lead author of the report said 

“the death penalty must be part of any discussion of police reform.” 

At a time when the US is struggling with the reform of its police force following the death of George Floyd and subsequent mass protests, reform is also required with regards to the criminal justice system and its application of capital punishment.

African Americans make up 42% of people on death row and 34% of executions, yet only 13% of the population is black, which is once again indicative of a clear racial bias in the sentencing of those convicted of capital crimes in the US.

“People of color are more likely to be prosecuted for capital murder, sentenced to death, and executed, especially if the victim in the case is white.”

Equal Justice Initiative

The need for change

It is undeniable that there have been improvements in some areas of the United States’ use of capital punishment in the 21st century. Executions have fallen consistently from 98 at the turn of the millennium, to 14 so far this year. Furthermore, in recent years, its abolition in New Mexico (2009), Illinois (2011), Connecticut (2012), Maryland (2013), New Hampshire (2019) and Colorado (2020) suggests that change is being made.

However, the removal of capital punishment in certain states provides a somewhat distorted view of the progress being made in the US, with the aforementioned states responsible for just 20 executions since 1976. Texas alone has carried out 566 executions in the same period, demonstrating that real progress is yet to be made in key areas where capital punishment is used most consistently. This, along with its increased use by federal authorities this year and the judicial system’s rampant racial prejudice, indicates that the death penalty is still a substantial problem in the US.


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