The American Death Penalty: Progress and Politics


America’s death penalty is an institution in decline. In recent decades the US has consistently ranked among China, Iran and Saudi Arabia as one of the world’s most prolific executors. However, the Death Penalty Information Centre (DPIC) 2015 annual report[1] details an encouraging year of accelerated decline in the use of America’s death penalty. Twenty-eight executions were carried out across six states in 2015, the lowest number of executions since 1991 and a decline of 20% on the previous year. Sentencing saw a 33% decline on the previous year, with 49 new death sentences imposed – the lowest annual total since 1973. The death penalty remained geographically isolated in 2015, with 2% of counties accounting for 63% of total new death sentences, and 4 states accounting for over 90% of executions. While 31 states retain the death penalty, a majority of states have not carried out an execution in the past decade. California, which possesses America’s largest death row population, has not conducted an execution since 2006, and has conducted 13 executions since 1976.

Popular support for the death penalty continued to decline in 2015, with polls suggesting that while over 55% of Americans agree in theory with the death penalty for first-degree murder, a large majority of Americans would prefer the defendant receive life without parole as an alternative. State action toward abolition also expanded, with four states imposing gubernatorial moratoria on executions[2]. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolfe, whose state possesses the nation’s third largest death row, pushed further toward abolition, arguing “Pennsylvania’s system is riddled with flaws, making it error prone, expensive, and anything but infallible.”[3] The fallibility of the system was epitomized in the exoneration of 6 death row inmates from 6 states in 2015, each of whom had spent on average 19 years on death row before their innocence was proved.

While 2015 gave abolitionists a great deal to celebrate, injustice continues to permeate the administration of America’s death penalty. The execution of the intellectually disabled remains prevalent in the US, despite the Supreme Court’s categorical exemption of the intellectually disabled from the death penalty in Atkins v. Virginia (2002). In 2015, the state of Georgia executed 66-year old Andrew Brannan, an intellectually disabled Vietnam veteran who had been hospitalized multiple times for post-traumatic stress disorder. According to the DPIC, the state of Texas executed at least three individuals in 2015 who exhibited strong evidence of intellectual disability, including Charles Ladd, who was described as “rather obviously retarded” by a state psychiatrist and possessed an IQ of just 67.

Finally, the American death penalty remains a potent symbol of racial inequality, division and control. This reality was epitomized in Donald Trump’s speech to New Hampshire police in December 2015, when he issued the following proposal: “One of the first things I’d do in terms of executive order…would be to sign a strong, strong statement that will go out to the country...anybody killing a police officer: death penalty.” Putting aside the clear constitutional illegalities of death penalty by executive order, Trump’s speech sent a very deliberate message of racial division. As the #blacklivesmatter movement continues to raise its voice against police brutality nationwide, Trump’s remarks serve only to reinforce antagonism between the black community and law enforcement, and validate the kind of racist cultural narratives which seek to create essentialist links between race and criminality.

Trump is by no means a pioneer in this respect. Throughout US history, racialised fear of criminality has continually served as justification for the expanded use of both judicial and extrajudicial capital sanctions, disproportionately against the black population. The disproportionate use of the death penalty against racial minorities for crimes against whites is well documented, and reinforces the fact that the death penalty in America today remains a symbol of ideological white supremacy and the political authoritarianism that frequently accompanies it. However such injustices are not unique to the United States. No system of capital punishment is immune from the capricious and arbitrary prejudices that obscure justice in even the most free and equal societies, let alone those which today remain under the grip of totalitarianism. If human rights are to be advanced and human communities are to truly flourish, the death penalty must be abolished wherever it is found.    


The author, Josh Thorp, is our Reprieve intern for semester one, 2016. Visit for more information