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.

News & Developments


Jul 12, 2024

Articles of Interest: Op-ed says new Tennessee law that expands the death penalty to child rape creates more problems than it solves.”

A July 7, 2024 op-ed in the Tennessean argues that the recent enac­tion of SB 1834, which makes the rape of a child pun­ish­able by death, does more harm than good.” Sarah McGee (pic­tured), coor­di­na­tor for Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, explains that dur­ing her work as a vic­tim-wit­ness coor­di­na­tor for Davidson County District Attorney’s Office, pro­ba­tion offi­cer, and assis­tant pub­lic defend­er, she learned that when child ser­vice providers and experts, the people…

Read More


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…

Read More


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…

Read More


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…

Read More