Facts & Research

Crimes Punishable by Death

Death sentences may only be imposed for crimes in which a victim is killed, but state legislatures can determine what specific circumstances make a murder eligible for a death sentence.

DPIC Analysis: Use of the Death Penalty for Killing a Child Victim

DPIC Analysis: Use of the Death Penalty for Killing a Child Victim

About half of all death penalty states include the murder of a child as an aggravating circumstance that can subject a defendant to the death penalty

Overview

All of the prisoners currently on death row and all of those executed in the modern era of the death penalty were convicted of murder. Historically, the death penalty was widely used for rape, particularly against black defendants with white victims. When the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, the Supreme Court left open the possibility of imposing the death penalty for offenses other than murder, such as rape or even armed robbery. However, the Court soon ruled that the death penalty would be unconstitutional for the rape of an adult where no death had occurred. That ban was later extended to any non-homicidal rape by the U.S. Supreme Court decision Kennedy v. Louisiana, and the Court commented that the death penalty could no longer be applied for any crime against an individual where no death occurred. The question of whether the death penalty might be used for crimes against the government, such as treason or espionage, remains unsettled.

At Issue

Many states allow all those who participated in a felony in which a death occurred to be charged with murder and possibly face the death penalty, even though they may not have directly killed anyone. The case of unarmed accomplices in a bank robbery in which an employee is killed is a typical example of felony murder. Since the death penalty is supposed to be reserved for the “worst of the worst” cases, legislatures or the courts could restrict its use only to those who directly participated in killing the victim. Prisoners have also raised claims that the aggravating circumstances that make a crime eligible for the death penalty are too broad, with some state death-penalty laws encompassing nearly all murders, rather than reserving the death penalty for a small subset of murders.

What DPIC Offers

Compilations of state laws are available, along with notable court decisions regarding this issue.


News & Developments


News

Mar 26, 2018

POLL: Americans Overwhelmingly Oppose Death Penalty for Overdose Deaths

Americans of all ages, races, and polit­i­cal affil­i­a­tions over­whelm­ing­ly oppose the Trump admin­is­tra­tion plan to pur­sue cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment for drug over­dose deaths and believe it will have no effect on address­ing the opi­oid pub­lic health cri­sis, accord­ing to a March 16 – 21, 2018 nation­wide Quinnipiac University poll.

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News

May 17, 2024

Tennessee Authorizes Death Penalty for Child Sexual Assault in Direct Challenge to Supreme Court Precedent

On May 9, Governor Bill Lee of Tennessee signed a bill autho­riz­ing the death penal­ty for aggra­vat­ed rape of a child, fol­low­ing Florida’s pas­sage of a sim­i­lar law last year. Both laws con­tra­dict long­stand­ing Supreme Court prece­dent hold­ing the death penal­ty uncon­sti­tu­tion­al for non-homi­cide crimes. Tennessee’s law takes effect on July 1. The state has had a death penal­ty mora­to­ri­um in place since May 2022 after Governor Lee learned that state offi­cials had failed to test exe­cu­tion drugs for bac­te­r­i­al con­t­a­m­i­na­tion; he ordered a sub­se­quent inde­pen­dent inves­ti­ga­tion which found that…

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News

Dec 18, 2023

Florida Prosecutors Seek First Death Sentence Under New Child Sex Abuse Law

On December 14, 2023, Lake County, Florida pros­e­cu­tors announced they are seek­ing the death penal­ty for a man accused of com­mit­ting the sex­u­al bat­tery of a minor under the age of twelve. A state­ment from the office of State Attorney William Gladson said the deci­sion reflects the sever­i­ty of the crime and its impact on the com­mu­ni­ty.” Earlier this year, Governor Ron DeSantis signed leg­is­la­tion that expands death penal­ty eli­gi­bil­i­ty to those con­vict­ed of sex crimes against chil­dren. This is the first case in which Florida pros­e­cu­tors have sought a…

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News

Apr 25, 2023

Law Reviews — Racial Bias in Felony Murder and Accomplice Liability

A forth­com­ing arti­cle in the Denver Law Review dis­cuss­es two the­o­ries of homi­cide law, the felony mur­der rule and accom­plice lia­bil­i­ty, that cre­ate group lia­bil­i­ty for the actions of an indi­vid­ual. The arti­cle, writ­ten by Professors G. Ben Cohen (pic­tured), Justin D. Levinson, and Koichi Hioki states that Research sug­gests that the admin­is­tra­tion of accom­plice lia­bil­i­ty [and] felony mur­der doc­trines dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly impact Black and minor­i­ty defen­dants,” caus­ing minor­i­ty defen­dants to be sen­tenced for first degree mur­ders they did not per­son­al­ly com­mit at greater rates than white defen­dants. The researchers’ expla­na­tion for this dis­par­i­ty is that Americans auto­mat­i­cal­ly indi­vid­u­al­ize white…

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Capital Case Development

Sep 16, 2021

Nevada Supreme Court Finds Samuel Howard Actually Innocent of Death Penalty

NEWS (9/​16/​21) – Nevada: The Supreme Court of Nevada has over­turned Samuel Howard’s death sen­tence, find­ing him actu­al­ly inno­cent” of the death penal­ty. Reversing the tri­al court’s dis­missal of Howard’s post­con­vic­tion chal­lenge to his death sen­tence, the appeals court ruled that a recent deci­sion by New York state courts that over­turned a con­vic­tion pros­e­cu­tors relied upon as an aggra­vat­ing cir­cum­stance in Howard’s case inval­i­dat­ed that aggra­vat­ing circumstance.

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News

May 07, 2021

Texas House of Representatives Passes Bill to Limit Death-Penalty Eligibility for Defendants Who Do Not Kill

In an over­whelm­ing bipar­ti­san vote, the Texas House of Representatives has passed a bill that ends death-penal­ty lia­bil­i­ty under the state’s con­tro­ver­sial law of par­ties” for felony accom­plices who nei­ther kill nor intend­ed that a killing take place and were minor par­tic­i­pants in the con­duct that led to the death of the vic­tim. Currently, Texas law makes any par­tic­i­pant in a felony crim­i­nal­ly liable for the acts of every­one else involved in the crime, irre­spec­tive of how small a role he played in the offense or whether he knew or…

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News

Jan 26, 2021

Former South Dakota Prosecutor and Judge Introduces Bill to Limit the State’s Death Penalty

A South Dakota state sen­a­tor who pre­vi­ous­ly served as a pros­e­cu­tor and a state court judge has intro­duced a bill to lim­it the breadth of the state’s death penal­ty statute. Senate Bill 98, intro­duced by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arthur Rusch (R – Clay, pic­tured) on January 25, 2021, would restrict cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment to a sin­gle aggra­vat­ing cir­cum­stance, pre­med­i­tat­ed mur­ders in which a defen­dant killed a police offi­cer, cor­rec­tions offi­cer, or fire­fight­er dur­ing the per­for­mance of their offi­cial duties.

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News

Dec 23, 2019

DPIC Analysis: Death Penalty Erosion Spreads Across the Western United States in 2019

In a year of declin­ing death-penal­ty usage across the United States, nowhere was the ero­sion of cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment as sus­tained and pro­nounced in 2019 as it was in the west­ern United States. Continuing a wave of momen­tum from Washingtons judi­cial abo­li­tion of cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment in October 2018, one state halt­ed exe­cu­tions and dis­man­tled its death cham­ber, anoth­er cleared its death row, two cut back on the cir­cum­stances in which the death penal­ty could be sought and imposed, and the entire region set record lows for new death sen­tences and executions.

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News

Apr 03, 2019

Discriminatory Use of Death Penalty Against Gays Raises Concerns Globally and in the U.S.

As human rights activists raise alarms about a new law in Brunei that would pun­ish homo­sex­u­al­i­ty by death by ston­ing, the U.S. Supreme Court con­sid­ers whether to hear a case in which jurors who exhib­it­ed anti-gay big­otry sen­tenced a gay defen­dant to death. Charles Rhines (pic­tured), a South Dakota death-row pris­on­er, is ask­ing the U.S. Supreme Court to review his case, after a low­er fed­er­al court denied him the oppor­tu­ni­ty to present juror state­ments show­ing that homo­pho­bic prej­u­dice played a role in his death sen­tence. Leading civ­il rights orga­ni­za­tions, including…

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