Oklahoma execution room (OK Dept. of Corrections)
An execution room in Oklahoma (Okla. Dept. of Corrections)

The botched execution of a condemned man in Oklahoma last week reignited America’s perennial debate over the death penalty and the ethics of capital punishment.

Among western democracies, the United States stands alone in its continued use of capital punishment. Since 1976, when the Supreme Court ended a brief moratorium, 1379 inmates have been executed at the hands of the state, and more than 3,000 remain on death row, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The death penalty is currently legal in 32 states — including California, where a 2012 voter initiative to ban it was narrowly defeated —  as well as within the federal justice system. 

But a series of factors, including botched executions, exonerations, evidence of racial discrimination in sentencing, excessive legal costs and dropping crime rates have all contributed to a growing uneasiness with capital punishment. Although a solid majority of Americans still believe that convicted murderers should be executed, support has waned considerably in the last few decades, according to recent polls. Of the 18 states (and the District of Columbia) that have abolished the death penalty, six have done so just within the last seven years, including, most recently, Maryland in 2013.

In the map below, death penalty states are in brown and states with bans in light blue. Mouse over each state for relevant data. (See article below map.)

  • Ron Smith

    Abolished death penalty or as we like to call it Free health care, room and board and meals for life for monsters Lotto states!

    • Jesse Baker

      Maybe you would enjoy all that prison room and board. It may even beat what’s available in the local homeless shelter. But we can’t execute our way out of this problem. There are 18,000 murders a year and only 50 put to death, so it’s obvious most homicides don’t result in a death sentence. Nor should they. Often victims provoke their own fate as in gang warfare, or it is a crime of passion rather than cold-blooded. Our laws account for such factors.

  • Bradley

    Death penalty should b mandatory for peaple who kill 3 or more people, children, and cop killers

  • Jeffrey Lange

    As an execution never brings back the victims, any “justice” it serves is merely a way to appease those left behind. An inmate in jail for life must live, daily, with the weight of his/her crimes. And even among those without remorse, they are stripped of their freedom and made to work for the state for pennies on the dollar.

    We have a responsibility to make sure criminals who have committed heinous crimes do not get another chance to do so. However, while the death penalty assures that, it is not the only assurance nor the best one. When violence is met with violence… and killing a killer is certainly that… we are not our best selves.

  • Jesse Baker

    Traditionally, our system has allowed each state to have its own penalties for crime. Rape used to be a capital offense in Alabama. The balance has been changing toward more federal influence over the years. The federal death penalty for murder dates back only to 1995, when Newt Gingrich became Speaker of the House in the Republican “Contract with America.” However, it covers many homicides even if they occur in non-death states. On the flip side, the Supreme Court has excluded the mentally retarded and juveniles from the classes of persons who can be executed.

    But philosophically, should the death sentence depend on polls as news stories suggest? Support has gone up and down like a yo-yo and there were periods as far back as the mid-1930s when majority sentiment stood against capital punishment. When Gingrich became speaker, 75% favored it. Sovereignty of popular will is fashionable, yet that’s not how government works. We get to elect our lawmakers, but the lawmakers vote only among themselves to pass a law. They don’t have to consult public opinion, and often arguably shouldn’t. When popular will rules, you have the Athenian mob that convicted Socrates.


Matthew Green

Matthew Green runs KQED’s News Education Project, a new online resource for educators and the general public to help explain the news. The project lives at kqed.org/lowdown.

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