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United States

last updated July 25, 2007


General Information

  • Country Name: United States of America
  • Type of Government: Constitution-based Federal Republic
  • U.N. Membership: Since October 24, 1945
  • Population: 301,139,947 (July 2007 estimate)

The World Factbook: United States, CIA, last updated July 19, 2007

Applicable International Human Rights Instruments


The federal death penalty was first used in the United States on June 25, 1790 when convicted murderer Thomas Bird was hanged in Maine.  State and colonial governments enacted the death penalty as earlier as 1608 in Virginia.  In 1972, the United States Supreme Court effectively voided 40 death penalty statutes when it ruled in Furman v. Georgia that the arbitrary and capricious application of the death penalty violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.  Many states, such as Florida on December 8, 1972, enacted new death penalty statutes soon after the Furman decision.  The Supreme Court declared these statutes constitutional in the 1976 Gregg v. Georgia case.  On January 17, 1977, Utah executed the first person after the moratorium, Gary Gilmore, by firing squad.

In 1988, the federal government enacted the death penalty for a murder committed in relation to a drug-kingpin conspiracy.  In 1994, the federal death penalty was expanded to include almost every homicide within federal jurisdiction and for other crimes such as treason and trafficking in large quantities of drugs.  In Atkins v. Virginia (2003), the Supreme Court ruled that executing mentally retarded persons is cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth Amendment.  The federal government had already expressly prohibited the execution of mentally retarded persons when it reinstated the federal death penalty in 1988.  In 2005, the Supreme Court found in Simmons v. Roper that executing people who were under 18 at the time of their crimes violated the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.

Death Penalty Eligible Crimes

Under the 1994 federal omnibus crime bill, the federal death penalty is available in almost every homicide case within federal jurisdiction and for other crimes such as espionage, treason, and trafficking in large quantities of drugs.

The 38 states that currently retain the death penalty permit its application mostly for specific types of murder.  In some states, crimes such as rape, aggravated kidnapping, and aircraft hijacking are also death penalty eligible.  Despite the 1977 Supreme Court ruling in Coker v. Georgia that the death penalty is unconstitutional for the rape of an adult when the victim is not killed, six states — Florida , Georgia, Louisiana, Montana, Oklahoma, and South Carolina — currently have laws that permit the death penalty for rape or child rape, although some only allow its use for repeated rapists.

Methods of Execution

For all death penalty eligible crimes delineated in the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, the method of execution used will be the type permitted in the state where the federal death sentence was handed down.  If the state does not allow the death penalty, the judge can choose the method of another state.  For offenses under the 1988 law, the method of executions is lethal injection.

Almost all death penalty states in the United States employ lethal injection.  Nebraska is the only state where electrocution is the sole method of execution.  Some states permit the use of electrocution, the gas chamber, hanging, and the firing squad in certain circumstances or as an alternative to lethal injection.

Relevant Statistics

339 men and 4 women have been executed since the federal death penalty was first used in 1790.  Only 3 federal executions have been carried out since 1963 when Victor Feguer was hanged in Iowa for kidnapping.  There are 53 people awaiting execution by the federal government as of July 11, 2007.

Two of the three men executed since 1963 were people of color.  As of July 11, 2007, the next six scheduled federal executions are for African American inmates.  According to a 2000 U.S. Department of Justice study of the federal death penalty, white defendants obtain life in prison through plea bargains at almost twice the rate of defendants of color.  In addition, U.S. Attorney Generals seek the death penalty far more often when the victims are white.  When the victim is white, the risk of death penalty authorization is 1.8 times higher than in other cases.

Across the United States, 124 death row inmates have been exonerated since 1973.

Current Concerns

As the aforementioned statistics demonstrate, racial bias remains well entrenched in the federal death penalty system.

In addition, the United States can seek the death penalty for crimes that violate federal law in jurisdictions that do not have their own death penalty statutes.  As a result, persons that violate federal laws in 12 states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico and Guam can receive the death penalty.  As of July 11, 2007, inmates who committed crimes in Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, North Dakota, Vermont, and West Virginia – all non-death penalty states – are on federal death row.  In June 2001, the U.S. 1st Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a federal judge that had ruled in 2000 that the federal death penalty could not be sought against two defendants in Puerto Rico because the death penalty is prohibited in that U.S. territory.

Compiled from:

History of the Death Penalty, Death Penalty Information Center, 2007.

Federal Death Penalty, Death Penalty Focus, April 3, 2007.

The Federal Death Penalty, Death Penalty Information Center, June 27, 2007.

Atkins v. Virginia, Justice John Paul Stevens, Supreme Court of the United States, June 20, 2002.

Methods of execution by state, Death Penalty Resource Community, 2007.

The Persistent Problem of Racial Disparities in the Federal Death Penalty, American Civil Liberties Union, June 25, 2007.

Innocence and the Death Penalty, Death Penalty Information Center, July 2, 2007.

La. child rapist’s death sentence upheld, Kevin McGill, Associated Press, May 23, 2007.