This article describes the results of a recent Gallup Poll on death penalty support in the United States and reviews the history of the death penalty in America. International statistics are also provided, including a list of those countries that continue to use the death penalty as well as those that have abolished this form of punishment.

Recent Poll on Support for the Death Penalty in America

A recent Gallup Poll shows that support for the death penalty amongst Americans has reached a new low—the lowest it has been in the last 40 years. More than one-third of Americans (35%) now oppose the death penalty. This is the highest level of opposition that has been seen since March 1972—the year that the Supreme Court ruled the death penalty to be unconstitutional unless it was applied fairly.

Click here for the full article on the Gallup Poll

Evolution of the Death Penalty in the United States

Execution was an inherited part of American culture beginning before settlement of the colonies. The first recorded execution of an American settler took place in Virginia in 1608 when George Kendall was executed by firing squad for spying. Since that time, between 14,489 and 18,000 people have been executed in the United States under government authority.

In times before the formalization of the country under a single constitution, execution was a fairly common practice. Although crimes for which capital punishment was an option varied by locale, all colonies allowed for the death penalty at some point. For example, persons were given death sentences for suspected witchcraft activities, bestiality, “man stealing,” idolatry, and “cursing a parent” in the Massachusetts settlement. As the colonists fought for independence, execution was used a threat for desertion or treason. Finally, under the official government of the United States, allowance of the death penalty became a national standard. The Constitution set guidelines that permitted both federal and state executions.

Since 1776, the country has vacillated considerably in terms of consensus on death penalty policy. The ratification of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution in 1791 did not halt executions, but has since given rise to numerous challenges including current questions about execution methods. States such as Michigan have held as death penalty abolitionists since 1852, while others, such as Texas, execute more people in one year than other states have ever executed.

Execution in the Twentieth Century

By the twentieth century, execution was an accepted practice of the American criminal justice system. In fact, 1935 saw a greater number of capital sentences than any other year to date. In the mid-1900s, executions for crimes other than murder still occurred, but with infrequency. By the 1960s, views about the death penalty had changed, and the number of condemned persons had declined. In 1968, the Supreme Court ordered a moratorium so as to review death penalty issues.

Furman v. Georgia

The decision in the landmark case of Furman v. Georgia, consolidated with two other cases, briefly halted capital punishment in the United States. Setting the political landscape for this decision, public opinion with regard to the death penalty had shifted significantly since its inception. In 1966, support for the death penalty reached its lowest point in America. A Gallup poll taken months before the Furman ruling found death penalty supporters only marginally outnumbering opponents. William Henry Furman, a relatively uneducated African American man, shot and killed the resident of the dwelling he was attempting to burglarize. After being convicted of murder and sentenced to death, Furman appealed, citing conflicts between his sentence and the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution; his appeal eventually being granted review by the Supreme Court. Rather than being a question of simple technicality, the appeal raised questions about the constitutionality of nationwide death penalty practices. On June 29, 1972, the Supreme Court, under the leadership of Chief Justice Warren Burger, ruled five to four that the death penalty was unconstitutional. It was opined that sentencing was often random, and juries were empowered with too much discretion. Each justice seemed to have different reasons for his opinion, and all issued separate opinions, resulting in the longest ever decision. Under the decision, all currently condemned persons were required to be re-sentenced to a noncapital punishment with no possibility of reinstating previous death sentences.

Rather than providing an ultimate answer to the question of capital punishment, the Furman ruling seemed to energize and further entrench activists on both sides of the issue. Within a day of the ruling, five states had declared intention to draft death penalty legislation that qualified under the new guidelines. Legislators worked quickly to reenact capital punishment and, in 1975, more people were sentenced to death in the United States than in any previously recorded year.

Gregg v. Georgia

One of many states to engage in a reworking of sentencing standards related to the death penalty following Furman, Georgia developed a bifurcated system. Specifically, to avoid the randomness cited as unconstitutional, Georgia’s revised procedures required a guilt or innocence phase of the trial for potential capital cases followed by a second phase wherein aggravating conditions must be proved and mitigating factors presented to jurors and/or judges. Under these guidelines, Troy Gregg was convicted of two counts of murder with the aggravating factor of armed robbery. He appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court and ultimately to the U.S. Supreme Court. In Gregg v. Georgia (1976) (and two other cases handed down simultaneously) the Supreme Court held that the death penalty was not, in and of itself, unconstitutional nor in conflict with evolving standards of decency, but rather an embedded part of the American justice system. So long as practices were not arbitrary, but instead were part of set criteria for determining sentencing, the court determined death penalty practices to be constitutional. In addition, it was required that potential capital crimes be narrowly defined, that a Supreme Court appeal be provided, and that mitigation be allowed. In sum, this decision clearly allowed for the sentencing and carrying out of executions.

Within six months of death penalty reinstatement, Gary Gilmore was legally executed in Utah. Since that time, additional challenges have been raised that have provided more guidance regarding capital punishment. For example, Coker v. Georgia (1977) determined that the crime of raping an adult could not be sanctioned with the death penalty.

Modern Day Methods

Following the pattern of the Supreme Court, some states have examined fairness issues and temporarily halted capital sentencing, only to have execution reinstated following a change in leadership. Currently, 38 states, the federal government, and the U.S. Military have some form of capital punishment. Modern-day methods of execution include lethal injection, electrocution, hanging, the firing squad, and the gas chamber. In addition to reinstating the practice of execution, the Gregg decision appears to have allowed for more frequent legal dialogue on the topic of capital punishment. Future dangerousness, race, and definition of aggravating factors, among other issues, have been addressed by the courts.

The Issue of Age

One area in which the courts have set limits on the death penalty is with regard to age. In Thompson v. Oklahoma (1988) and Stanford v. Kentucky (1989), both of which were ultimately heard by the Supreme Court, age at the time of the offense was considered in determining whether the death penalty could be imposed. In Stanford, the appellate was over age 17 at the time of the crime, and the court affirmed imposition of the death penalty. Thompson on the other hand, was only 15 when his crime was committed, and the court deter- mined that his execution would violate the Eighth Amendment. Until 2005 the death penalty was not pursued when defendants were under 16 years of age at the time of the offense.

Relatively recently, the Supreme Court increased the age at which a person can be sanctioned with capital punishment. At the age of 17, Christopher Simmons plotted with two younger friends to kidnap and murder a female victim. He and another person broke into her home, bound her, and threw her from a bridge, resulting in her death. He was found guilty and sentenced to death, and the case was eventually heard by the Supreme Court. In Roper v. Simmons (2005) the court cited behavioral science literature finding that adolescents do not have the same level of maturity as adults and are more likely to behave impulsively. More importantly, the court considered a “national consensus” argument that involved the fact that only three states had executed an offender who was a juvenile at the time of the crime within the last decade. Finally, the court reviewed the positions of the international community, a minority of whom allow for the execution of minors. As such, the court set the standard for consideration of capital punishment at the age of 18 at the time of the offense.

The Issue of Mental Retardation or Developmental Disability

In addition to exploring the question of age, courts and legislators have reviewed mental status issues and their relevance to criminal sanctions. In Penry v. Lynaugh (1989) the Supreme Court determined that the execution of mentally retarded offenders was not specifically banned. More recently, in Atkins v. Virginia (2002), the court reversed its earlier decision. In this case, Darryl Atkins and an accomplice were convicted of abducting, robbing, and killing a male victim. Despite Atkins’ documented IQ of 59, he was sentenced to death. Again, the Supreme Court cited the “national consensus” position, noting that the execution of mentally retarded individuals was not supported by state statutes and practices. In addition, it was held that the purported purposes of the death penalty, retribution and deterrence, were not satisfied by executing mentally retarded persons. As such, execution of these individuals was found to be in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The court allowed for further review of this question as criteria for the determination of mental retardation were not specified.

The Issue of Mental Illness

Related to the issue of executing mentally retarded individuals is the issue of executing mentally ill individuals. Accepted standards of practice exist to ensure mentally ill persons are competent to stand trial and to determine whether an individual should be held criminally responsible for a given behavior. In Ford v. Wainwright (1986), the Supreme Court addressed whether mentally ill persons who have been sentenced to death should be executed. The court held that, under the Eighth Amendment, it was not acceptable to carry out a death sentence against a person so “insane” as not to understand the nature or purpose of the punishment (e.g., the punishment of death or its link to the commission of the crime). This ruling falls far short of exempting mentally ill individuals from execution. It appears likely, however, that further legal discourse on the topic is on the horizon.

Capital Punishment in the International Community

International developments within the last 20 years or so have produced a clear, strong trend away from capital punishment. The number of countries that have abolished the death penalty is at an all-time high and the international community has called upon those countries that still use the death penalty to sharply curtail its use. In addition, international agreements have expressed a strong preference for an end to all executions.

As of December, 2000, the number of countries that had abolished the death penalty for all crimes, whether in peacetime or wartime, totaled 76 with an additional 11 countries abolishing the death penalty for ordinary crimes in peacetime, and an additional 36 countries being considered de facto abolitionist as they had not executed anyone within the last 10 years. Thus, 37 percent (71 countries) of the international community had retained the death penalty as of the end of 2000, a significant decrease from the 56 percent that had retained the death penalty as of 1988 and the 47 percent that had retained it as of the end of 1995.

With respect to the number of executions that take place, China leads the world in overall number of executions. For the period 1994–1998, China executed a total of 12, 338 people (although some Chinese scholars estimate that the true number may be a lot higher); Iran executed the second highest number, with 505 executions; Saudi Arabia executed 465 people; Ukraine and Turkmenistan executed 389 and 373 people, respectively, although executions ceased during 1997 for both countries. The United States was sixth highest for that same period with 274 individuals being executed (93 of these in Texas). When the estimated annual rate per million population is examined for this same time period, Turkmenistan leads the international community with 14.92 people per million being executed annually, followed closely by Singapore with 13.93 people per million being executed annually; Saudi Arabia executed 4.65 people per million annually; and Belarus executed 3.20 people per million annually. China, although having the highest number of executions, executed 2.01 people per million annually and the United States was far lower at 0.20 people per million executed annually during that time period.

Recently, China has taken steps to respond to domestic and international criticism regarding its extensive use of capital punishment in an effort to reduce the high rate of executions. On October 30, 2006, China adopted new rules requiring that, as of January 1, 2007, all death sentences be reviewed by the Supreme People’s Court. The National People’s Congress, China’s legislature, approved this amendment, which restores a power that was stripped from the Supreme Court in 1983, in an effort to reduce the widespread and arbitrary use of the death penalty. China had been facing increasing criticism over the last few years after a number of executed individuals had later been proved innocent.

Countries that have Abolished the Death Penalty for All Crimes (n = 76)

Andorra, Angola, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Bolivia, Bulgaria, Cambodia, Canada, Cape Verde, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cote d”Ivoire, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Djibouti, Dominican Republic, East Timor, Ecuador, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Guinea-Bissau, Haiti, Honduras, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Kiribati, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Malta, Marshall Islands, Mauritius, Federated States of Micronesia, Moldova, Monaco, Mozambique, Namibia, Nepal, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Palau, Panama, Paraguay, Poland, Portugal, Romania, San Marion, Sao Tome and Principe, Seychelles, Slo- vak Republic, Slovenia, Solomon Islands, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkmenistan, Tuvalu, Ukraine, United Kingdom, Northern Ireland, Uruguay, Vanuatu, Vatican City State, Venezuela

Countries that have Abolished the Death Penalty for Ordinary Crimes in Peacetime (n = 11)

Albania, Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Brazil, Cyprus, El Salvador, Fiji, Israel, Latvia, Mexico, Peru

Countries Considered to be de facto Abolishionist with no Executions in 10 Years or More  (n = 36)

Antigua and Barbuda, Armenia, Barbados, Belize, Benin, Bhutan, Brunei Darussalam, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Chile, Congo (Republic), Dominica, Eritrea, Gabon, Gambia, Grenada, Guinea, Jamaica, Laos, Madagascar, Maldives, Mali, Mauritania, Myanmar, Nauru, Niger, Papua New Guinea, Senegal, Sri Lanka, Suriname, Swaziland, Togo, Tonga, Turkey, Samoa, Yugoslavia

Countries that still use the Death Penalty (n = 71)

Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahamas, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belarus, Botswana, Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, China, Comoros, Congo (Democratic Republic), Cuba, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guatemala, Guyana, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Japan, Jordan, Kazakstan, Kenya, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Lesotho, Liberia, Libya, Malawi, Malaysia, Mongolia, Morocco, Nigeria, North Korea, Oman, Pakistan, Palestinian Authority, Philippines, Qatar, Russian Federation, Rwan- da, Saint Christopher and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and Grenadines, Saudi Arabia, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Somalia, South Korea, Sudan, Syria, Taiwan, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Thailand, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Uganda, United Arab Emirates, United States of America, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, Yemen, Zambia, Zimbabwe


Portions of this article were excerpted from: McLearen, A. M., & Zapf, P. A. (2007). The death penalty: A brief review of historical roots and current practices relevant to the mental health practitioner (pp. 295-319). In R. K. Ax & T. J. Fagan (Eds.), Corrections, mental health, and social policy. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.

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