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Facts about the death penalty in the USA 

A prisoner in an orange jumpsuit with his hands cuffed behind his back

Women on Death Row follows the stories of the women who have been sentenced to the ultimate punishment - the death penalty. The show gives full access to the journeys of these women, from their crimes and convictions to their struggles living in prison. Women on Death Row airs Wednesdays at 9pm on Crime + Investigation

The death penalty, or capital punishment, is the legal execution of a criminal. Civilisations throughout history have continued to use the death penalty as a method of punishment for criminals. 55 countries around the world still retain and implement the death penalty.

Here we’re exploring the history of the death penalty in the USA and looking at how prevalent it is across different states.

The death penalty in the USA

Criminals in the USA have been put to death in many ways since the country’s formation. These include shooting, hanging, electrocution, poisonous gas, and lethal injection. All states that still have the death penalty in place use lethal injection, but some allow one of the other methods as an option should that be the preference of the condemned person.

The death penalty was widely accepted for centuries, but by the 1800s, both Europeans and Americans began to oppose it. Michigan became the first state to abolish the death penalty in 1845, followed by Wisconsin in 1848. The movement against the death penalty became much more pronounced after World War II and the senseless death that came with it. Every Western European country and Canada abolished capital punishment, leaving the USA as the only Western democracy still executing criminals.

In 1972, capital punishment was suspended in the USA for several years, and all people on death row at the time saw their sentences changed to life imprisonment. Rather than abandoning the death penalty completely, 37 US states chose to enact new statutes so they could still sentence certain defendants to death.

On 2nd July 1976, the US Supreme Court reaffirmed its acceptance of the use of the death penalty. Executions resumed on 17th January 1977, when Gary Gilmore was executed via firing squad in Utah. When comparing the USA to other countries the differences are stark, with the last execution in the UK taking place in 1964 and the last in France taking place in 1977.

As of June 2023, 27 states have the death penalty. According to the Death Penalty Information Centre, everyone currently on death row has been convicted of murder.

Sentencing and conviction

Once a defendant is found guilty of a crime in the USA, they must return to court later to be sentenced. The judge is given guidance and assistance from different sources before they hand out what they deem to be a fair sentence to the defendant. Congress has established minimum and maximum punishments for many crimes which the judge will use to decide their final sentence.

The death penalty can only be imposed on defendants who are convicted of capital offences, these include:

  • Murder
  • Treason
  • Killing or kidnapping the president, a congressman, or a Supreme Court judge

Unlike with other punishments, the jury must decide whether to impose the death penalty and it is not something the judge can decide alone.

Women on death row

As of October 2022, official sources report that there are 50 women on death row in the USA. Over 40 women have been executed in the USA in the last 100 years. The death sentencing rate remains very low for women compared to men. The executions of women since records began make up just 3.6% of the total.

The Case of Linda Carty

Linda Carty stands to become the first female British national to be executed in the USA since Ruth Ellis in 1955. Carty was convicted for the abduction and murder of Joana Rodriguez, to steal her newborn baby. Prosecutors argued that Carty arranged and orchestrated the crime, carried out by masked men who abducted Rodriguez and her baby. The baby was rescued, the men were arrested but only Carty was prosecuted for the crime of capital murder. As of today, she has exhausted the appeal process and there are no further ways to avoid the death penalty she was sentenced to.

Top facts and stats about the death penalty in the USA

  • The latest figures as of October 2022 state there are 2,363 prisons on death row in America.
  • The US Supreme Court states they have executed 1,532 people since 1976 when the death penalty was most recently reinstated.
  • There have been 190 death row exonerations since 1973, with 30 coming from the state of Florida.
  • There have been 295 individuals granted clemency since 1976.
  • 22 individuals were executed between 1976 and 2005 for crimes they committed as juveniles.