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Furman at 50: DPIC provides a census of nearly 10,000 death sentences


As noted in this recent post, the US Supreme Court’s remarkable death penalty opinion in Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972), is now a half-century old, which provides me with an excuse to do a series of “Furman at 50″ posts.  Helpfully, I am not the only one celebrating this milestone, and the Death Penalty Information Center has created a remarkable “Death Penalty Census.”  As described here, this “census is the most comprehensive database of death sentences ever assembled, containing more than 9,700 death sentences.” Here is more:

In the census, DPIC has attempted to identify every death sentence handed down in the U.S. from the day Furman was decided through January 1, 2021 and track the status of each sentence. The data provide powerful evidence that the nation’s use of capital punishment continues to be arbitrary, discriminatory, and rife with error….

The database contains the name, race, and gender of each defendant sentenced to death; the state and county (or federal district or military branch) of prosecution; the year of sentencing; the outcome of the particular sentence; and the final outcome or current status of the case.

Here are just a few of many “key findings” from DPIC’s analysis of more than 9,700 death sentences that were sent to me via email:

  • Fewer than 1 in 6 death sentences result in an execution.
  • A death sentence is 3 times more likely to be reversed as a result of a court decision than it is to result in an execution.
  • At least 189 people who were wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death have been exonerated since 1973. That is one person exonerated for every 8.2 people who are executed. (189 exonerations/1547 executions based on data updated through June 29, 2022.)
  • More than 530 capital convictions and/or death sentences have been overturned because of, or resulted in exonerations involving, prosecutorial misconduct. That is nearly 5.5% of all death sentences imposed in the U.S. in the past 50 years.
  • Fewer than 2.4% of all counties in the U.S. (just 75 counties) account for half of all death sentences imposed in state courts in the past 50 years.
  • It is 5.9 times more likely that an execution carried out in the U.S. over the past 50 years involved one or more white victims (1207 cases) than that it involved only Black victims (206 cases). 78.1% of executions in the U.S. in the past 50 years were in cases involving white victims. 13.3% were in cases with only Black victims. 6.5% were in cases with only Latinx victims.
  • Defendants of color constitute 52.8% of those sentenced to death over the past 50 years. Yet they make up 64.2% of death-row exonerees and 83.1% of all death-row prisoners later found to be ineligible for the death penalty because of intellectual disability.
  • Death sentences have declined in the United States by approximately 90% after peaking at more than 300 per year for three consecutive years in the mid 1990s, including a 70% decline over the decade preceding the pandemic. There have been fewer than 50 new death sentences imposed each year since 2015.
  • Executions have declined in the United States by approximately 75% after peaking at 98 in 1999, to an average of 23.6 in the five years before the pandemic. There have been fewer than 30 executions in the U.S. every year since 2015.

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