Recent Legal History of the Death Penalty in America

Anti-Death Penalty Groups Hold Demonstration Against Executions
Anti-Death Penalty Groups Hold Demonstration Against Executions. Alex Wong / Getty Images

While capital punishment – the death penalty – has been an integral part of the American judicial system since the colonial period, when a person could be executed for offenses like witchcraft or stealing grapes, the modern history of American execution has been shaped largely by political reaction to public opinion.

According to data on capital punishment collected by the federal government’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, a total of 1,394 people were executed under sentences handed down by federal and state civilian courts from 1997 to 2014. However, there have been extended periods in recent history during which punitive death took a holiday.

Voluntary Moratorium: 1967-1972

While all but 10 states allowed the death penalty in the late 1960s, and an average of 130 executions per year were being carried out, public opinion turned sharply against the death penalty. Several other nations had dropped the death penalty by the early 1960s and legal authorities in the U.S. were starting to question whether or not executions represented "cruel and unusual punishments" under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Public support for the death penalty reached its lowest point in 1966, when a Gallup poll showed only 42% of Americans approved of the practice.

Between 1967 and 1972, the U.S. observed what amounted to a voluntary moratorium on executions as the U.S. Supreme Court wrestled with the issue. In several cases not directly testing its constitutionality, the Supreme Court modified the application and administration of the death penalty. The most significant of these cases dealt with juries in capital cases. In a 1971 case, the Supreme Court upheld the unrestricted right of juries to both determine guilt or innocence of the accused and to impose the death penalty in a single trial.

Supreme Court Overturns Most Death Penalty Laws

In the 1972 case of Furman v. Georgia, the Supreme Court issued a 5-4 decision effectively striking down most federal and state death penalty laws finding them "arbitrary and capricious." The court held that the death penalty laws, as written, violated the "cruel and unusual punishment" provision of the Eighth Amendment and the due process guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment.

As a result of Furman v. Georgia, more than 600 prisoners who had been sentenced to death between 1967 and 1972 had their death sentences commuted.  

Supreme Court Upholds New Death Penalty Laws

The Supreme Court's decision in Furman v. Georgia did not rule the death penalty itself to be unconstitutional, only the specific laws by which it was applied. Thus, the states quickly began to write new death penalty laws designed to comply with the court's ruling.

The first of the new death penalty laws created by the states of Texas, Florida and Georgia gave the courts wider discretion in applying the death penalty for specific crimes and provided for the current "bifurcated" trial system, in which a first trial determines guilt or innocence and a second trial determines punishment. The Texas and Georgia laws allowed the jury to decide punishment, while Florida's law left the punishment up to the trial judge.

In five related cases, the Supreme Court upheld various aspects of the new death penalty laws. These cases were:

Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976)
Jurek v. Texas, 428 U.S. 262 (1976)
Proffitt v. Florida, 428 U.S. 242 (1976)
Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U.S. 280 (1976)
Roberts v. Louisiana, 428 U.S. 325 (1976)

As a result of these decisions, 21 states threw out their old mandatory death penalty laws and hundreds of death row prisoners had their sentences changed to life in prison.

Execution Resumes

On January 17, 1977, convicted murderer Gary Gilmore told a Utah firing squad, "Let's do it!" and became the first prisoner since 1976 executed under the new death penalty laws. A total of 85 prisoners - 83 men and two women - in 14 U.S. states were executed during 2000.

Current Status of the Death Penalty

As of January 1, 2015, the death penalty was legal in 31 states: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming.

Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have abolished the death penalty: Alaska, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

Between the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976 and 2015, executions have been carried out in thirty-four states.

From 1997 to 2014, Texas led all death penalty-legal states, carrying out a total of 518 executions, far ahead of Oklahoma’s 111, Virginia’s 110, and Florida’s 89.

Detailed statistics on executions and capital punishment can be found on the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Capital Punishment website