In December 2009, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) of the U.S. Department of Justice released statistical data on capital punishment in the United States for 2008. The report was later revised to include preliminary statistics on capital punishment in 2009.
Of the 37 executions carried out in 2008, most were in Texas (18), followed by Virginia (4) and Georgia and South Carolina (3 each). One execution was by electrocution and the others by lethal injection. All of the executed prisoners were male; 20 were white and 17 were black.
Texas also led the capital punishment statistics for 2009 with 24 executions, followed by Alabama (6), Ohio (5) and Georgia, Oklahoma and Virginia (3 each). There were a total of 52 executions in 2009 – an increase of 40% over the previous year.
The average amount of time that condemned prisoners had spent on death row as of December 31, 2008 was more than 12 years. Thirty-seven states and the federal government had statutes authorizing capital punishment at year-end 2008. Thirty-six states and the federal government authorized execution by lethal injection, nine states allowed electrocution, four states permitted lethal gas to be used, three states allowed hanging and three states authorized firing squads.
Due to a state Supreme Court ruling that held electrocution violated the state constitution, Nebraska had no authorized method of execution in 2008. The Nebraska legislature has since adopted lethal injection as a means of capital punishment, and the state’s new execution chamber was unveiled in July 2010.
There were 111 new death sentences imposed in 2008, the smallest number since at least 1993. Excluding executions, 82 prisoners were removed from death row that same year – which included overturned convictions or sentences, commutations, and deaths from other causes.
From 1977 through 2008, 7,658 people were sentenced to death. Of those, 15% have been executed and 5% died of causes other than execution. At the end of 2008 there were 3,207 prisoners under sentence of death nationwide. California had the most death row prisoners (669), followed by Florida (390), Texas (354) and Pennsylvania (223).
New York was the only state that authorized capital punishment yet had no prisoners on death row; a 2004 state court ruling had imposed an effective moratorium on executions, which is still in effect.
At year-end 2008, 98.2% of death-sentenced prisoners were male, 56.1% were white, 41.7% were black, and 13.2% were of Hispanic origin. The median education level of death row prisoners was 12th grade; 40.8% graduated from high school or had a GED and 9.2% had some college, but 13.5% never got past the 8th grade. Of all death row prisoners, 34.5% had no prior felony convictions
The BJS statistics provide some insight into the characteristics of prisoners who face the ultimate punishment in our revenge-oriented, eye-for-an-eye system of criminal justice. Despite an increase in executions in 2009, the trend in the United States appears to be toward rethinking the death penalty, with two states recently repealing their capital punishment statutes (New Mexico in 2009 and New Jersey in 2007), and fewer death sentences being imposed in the states that authorize executions. Let us hope that trend continues.
The BJS statistical tables are available online on PLN’s website or at: www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs.
Sources: Capital Punishment 2008 – Statistical Tables, Bureau of Justice Statistics, NCJ 228662 (December 2009); Jour-nal Star; www.deathpenaltyinfo.org
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