Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Report Details General Decline In Death Penalty Statistics For 2003

For most of the nation, 2003 was a year of declining death penalty statistics. That year, according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) report, the number of death sentences imposed fell to a 30-year low, while the number of completed executions also declined slightly.

During 2003, 144 prisoners were sentenced to death24 fewer than in 2002 and lowest number since 44 prisoners received death sentences in 1973. By contrast, between 1994 and 2000 the average was 297 per year.
Twenty-five states and the federal government accounted for all 144 death sentences in 2003. Five statesTexas (29), California (19), Florida (11), and Arizona and Oklahoma (both 9)accounted for more than half of there.
At yearend 2003, 3,374 prisoners were on death row in 37 states and the federal prison system, 188 fewer than at yearend 2002. It was the third consecutive year to show a decline. Much of the reduction (91%), however, was accounted for by a single act: Illinois governor George Ryan's decision to commute 167 death sentences to life in prison [See PLN, July 2003, p. 24].

The number of women on death row also declined slightly. On December 31, 2003, 47 women were under sentence of death, down from 51 the year before. Although 17 states held women on death row, two-thirds were imprisoned in just 4 states: California (14), Texas (8), Pennsylvania (5), and North Carolina (4).

When broken down by race, 55.7% of the total death row population at yearend 2003 was white, 42.0% black, and 2.3% other races. Hispanics, which can be of any race, accounted for 12.5% of those with known ethnicity.

During 2003, 267 prisoners were removed from death row. The majority257received other dispositions (again, Illinois accounted for the majority) while 10 died before being executed (6 from natural causes, 4 from suicide).

Much of the country's condemned population (43%) resided in just three states, according to the report. California led with 629, followed by Texas (453), and Florida (364). The BOP held 23.

In 2003, 11 states and the federal government executed 65 prisoners, 6 fewer than the year before. Some statistics: All of the executed were male; 41 were white, 20 were black, 3 were Hispanic (all white), and 1 was American Indian; 64 received lethal injection, one was electrocuted; and the average time on death row before execution was 10 years and 11 months.
In keeping with prosecutorial efforts to promote a kinder, gentler death penalty through faux medicalization of the process [See PLN, February 2005, p. 23], lethal injection was used to carry out 98% of the executions performed in 2003, up from 68% in 1993.

Texas carried out the most executions (24), followed by Oklahoma (14), and North Carolina (7). Notably, the Texas anomaly is not newthe state has long been the nation's execution capital. Of the 885 executions carried out from January 1, 1977 through 2003, two-thirds occurred in just 5 states. Of those, Texas led with 339more than the next 4 combined. Virginia was second with 89, followed by Oklahoma (68), Missouri (61), and Florida (57).

Currently, Texas accounts for more than one in five death sentences nationwide, and Texas juries impose an average of 34 death sentences a year, the Houston Chronicle reported in November 2004. Some legal experts blame the state's sentencing laws. With life without parole as a sentencing option, those numbers may decline.

As for the rest of the nation, death penalty opponents contend the declining numbers show waning public support for capital punishment in the wake of publicity surrounding wrongful convictions and growing concern over whether the penalty is administered fairly.

The report also contained a number of other notable statistics. Among them:
Of the 38 states with capital punishment statutes, all but one (South Carolina) provided for some sort of automatic review, regardless of the defendant's wishes.

During the year, 11 states revised their death penalty laws. Most of the changes dealt with exempting mentally retarded and youthful offenders from death, expanding the death penalty to include homicides related to acts of terrorism, and post-conviction proceedings.

Between 1977 and 2003, 7,061 prisoners were sentenced to death. Of those, 12% were executed, 4% died from something other than execution, and 36% received other dispositions. The executed included 501 white non-Hispanic men, 300 black non-Hispanic men, 61 Hispanic men, 8 American Indian men, 5 Asian men, 9 white non-Hispanic women, and 1 black non-Hispanic woman.
A copy of the November 2004 report, Capital Punishment, 2003, is available online at or by writing NCJRS, P.Q. Box 6000, Rockville, Maryland 20849-6000.

Additional sources: Houston Chronicle, The New York Times

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login