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Capital punishment

Part 1: Death penalty data

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bullet "Executing the mentally retarded is senseless cruelty. Even strong death penalty supporters recognize that capital punishment is wrong for people with the mind of a child." Jamie Fellner, Human rights Watch associate counsel, commenting on the scheduled execution by the state of Texas of Johnny Penry, a man with the mental age of a 1st grade student; his IQ was between 50 and 63.  

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Map showing status of death penalty laws, as of 2014-APR:

map of US with laws shown 9

About six states have abolished the death penalty over the past six years.

Detailed map showing information on state laws, abolition campaigns, and number of recent executions:

U.S. map with execute data 10

Death penalty data:

bullet In the United States, about 13,000 people have been legally executed since colonial times.
bullet By the 1930's up to 150 people were executed yearly. 1 Lack of public support for capital punishment and various legal challenges reduced the execution rate to near zero by 1967. The U.S. Supreme Court banned the practice in 1972.

In 1976, the Supreme Court authorized its resumption. 2 Each state could then decide whether or not to have the death penalty.

As of 2002-OCT, only 12 states and the District of Columbia did not have the death penalty. The states which had abolished executions are typically northern: Alaska, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia and Wisconsin. However, seven jurisdictions have the death penalty but have not performed any executions since 1976. They are also mostly northern: Connecticut, Kansas, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, South Dakota and the U.S. military.

By 2012-APR, four more states had abolished the death penalty:

  • 2004: The courts declared the death penalty to be unconstitutional in New York.
  • 2007: New Jersey repealed its death penalty law.
  • 2009: New Mexico repealed its death penalty law.
  • 2011: Illinois repealed its death penalty law.
  • 2012: The Connecticut Legislature passed a bill to abandon the death penalty for future convictions, although the 11 men still on death row may still be executed. The governor signed it into law on 2012-APR-25 making that state the 17th to repeal the death penalty. This is more than one third of the states. 7
  • 2013: Maryland became the 18th state to eliminate the death penalty.

On election day in 2012-NOV, California voters voted on whether to approve a proposition to abandon the death penalty and change the sentence of those on death row to life imprisonment without parole. They approved retention of capital punishment by a narrow margin of 52 to 48%. The percentage of voters opposed to the death penalty is rising; it was only 29% in 1978. 8

bulletThe U.S. Supreme Court ruled that whenever a sentencing jury has the ability to impose capital punishment, the jury must be informed in advance if the defendant would be eligible for parole if he or she was sentenced to life imprisonment.
bullet Almost all states have an automatic review of each conviction by their highest appellate court.
bullet There are a number of federal offenses that can lead to the death penalty. About 21 prisoners are housed in death row at the federal Terre Haute, IN facility. One was executed in 2001. This was the first federal execution in 36 years.
bullet Texas holds the record for the largest number of executions since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Virginia has executed a larger percentage of its population than any other state over 1 million in population. 
bulletAs of 2002-JAN-1: From 1976, when executions were resumed, until 2002-JUL-1, there were 784 executions in the US. About 30 to 60 prisoners are currently killed annually, most by lethal injection. About 66% of the executions are conducted in five states: Texas, Virginia, Missouri, Florida and Oklahoma. Texas leads the other states in number of killings (256 killings; 34% of the national total). There were about 3,690 prisoners sentenced to death in 37 state death rows, and 31 being held by the U.S. government and military. 3 About 1.5% are women. Recent laws have expanded the number of crimes for which capital punishment can be applied. Other legislation has reduced some of the appeal mechanisms available to those on death row. 
bulletPublic approval of the death penalty is currently about 70%. Public support is essentially the same in Canada, a country which has abandoned capital punishment. However, when a public opinion poll is taken in which subjects are asked whether they preferred the death penalty or life imprisonment with no opportunity for parole, a majority will often select the latter.
bullet The vast majority of those executed were poor. About 90% could not afford a lawyer when they went to trial. They had to rely upon a court-appointed lawyer.

The homicide rate in those states with the death penalty is almost double the rate of those states without the death penalty. It is not known whether this is due to:

  • People in high-homicide states demanding the death penalty as a perceived deterrent, or

  • Use of the death penalty by the state cheapens the value of life, and causes a higher homicide rate, or

  • Some other reason.
bullet Essentially all of the persons executed are male. since 1976 when executions resumed, there have only been four women executed -- all in Southern states. These were:
bullet 1984-NOV-02: North Carolina: Velma Barfield confessed to murdering three people with arsenic. According to

 "In prison she became a born-again Christian and her list of supporters who objected to her execution grew, including evangelist Billy Graham. Velma also discovered she was a skilled counselor and helped inmates adjust to their prison existence. She co-wrote a book, Woman on Death Row, a collection of her memoirs."  4

While in prison she confessed to additional murders.

bullet 1998-FEB-03: Texas: Karla Faye Tucker, 38, was convicted of killing two people in 1983 with a pickax. She was the first woman since 1863 to be executed in that state. She had repented of her crimes, and been "born again" during her 14 years of imprisonment . Her case received a great deal of publicity. Many individuals and groups pleaded for clemency. This included Fundamentalist Teleminister Pat Robertson; Ron Carlson (brother of victim Deborah Thornton); Peggy Kurtz, (sister of victim Jerry Dean); Paul Ward, a juror who convicted Tucker; and even her arresting officer, J.C. Mosier. 5
bullet 1998-MAR-30: Florida: Judy Beenano, 54 was called the "Black Widow" for poisoning her husband, drowning her son and trying to blow up her fiance. She was the first woman to be executed in Florida since 1848.
bullet 2002-OCT-09: Florida: Aileen Wuornos was found guilty for the murders of six men including one police officer and a missionary. A movie name titled "Monster" starring Charlize Theron was made about her life. Several books, documentaries, and TV specials have also been produced. She also became a Christian in prison. Her last words were: "I'd just like to say I'm sailing with the Rock and I'll be back like Independence Day with Jesus, June 6, like the movie, big mothership and all. I'll be back." There is no evidence that she has returned yet. 6
bullet Canada does not have a death penalty. In most cases, the most serious sentence for murder is life imprisonment with no possibility of parole for 25 years. However, if a person has a long history of violent crime, then they can be declared a "dangerous offender." With this classification they are given an indefinite sentence with little chance of ever being released from prison.

Public opinion polls show that over 70% of the adult population would like to see a return of hanging for first degree murder. This is almost identical to the level of support in the U.S. The Roman Catholic Church and liberal churches wish to continue the present status; conservative Protestant denominations are overwhelmingly in favor of a return to capital punishment. However, they do not appear to be aggressively promoting the death penalty. Their main concerns seem to be directed at preventing same-sex couples from marrying, limiting abortion access, and maintaining soliciting for prostitution and marijuana use as criminal acts .

The homicide rate in Canada has been gradually dropping since executions were stopped. This phenomenon has been observed in many other countries who have abandoned the death penalty. However, statisticians have never been able to convincingly prove that there is a relationship between the decrease in homicides and the cessation of the death penalty.

bullet Relatively few other developed countries in the world impose the death penalty. Japan, South Korea, and the U.S. are the only established democracies in the world that still conduct executions. The execution rate in Japan is a small fraction of that in the U.S.

bullet Some countries, such as Italy, routinely refuse to extradite accused murderers to the US because of the possibility that they might be executed. Canada originally refused to extradite suspected mass murderer Charles Ng to California for a trial. The government ruling was later overturned by Canada's Supreme Court.

More details on this topic.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "The Death Penalty", Briefing report, American Civil Liberties Union, at:
  2. Gregg v. Georgia, 428 US 153 (1976).
  3. "Death Row U.S.A. - Summer 2002," Death Penalty Information Center, at:  This is a PDF file. If you can't read these files, software can be obtained free from:
  4. Charles Montaldo, "Velma Barfield - The Death Row Granny,", at:
  5. "Execution a no-win situation for Governor," The Guardian, 1997-DEC-20,  (no longer online)
  6. "Monster (2003)," Movie Origins, at:
  7. David Aristo, "Connecticut becomes 17th state to abolish death penalty ," CNN, 2012-APR-25, at:
  8. Paul Elias, "California Death Penalty Ban Rejected By Voters," Huffington Post, 2012-NOV-07, at:
  9. Modified by an image created by "Frenzie23" See Wikipedia at: for licensing restrictions.
  10. Map copied from the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. Used by permission.

Navigation: Home page > "Hot" religious topics > Death penalty > here

Copyright 1995 to 2014 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally published: 1995-JUN-8
Last updated 2014-APR-02
Author: B. A. Robinson

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