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


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.

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