Facts & Research

The DPIC Death Penalty Census

The Death Penalty Census is DPIC’s effort to identify and document every death sentence imposed in the United States since the United States Supreme Court decided Furman v. Georgia in 1972. The Census currently lists more than 9,700 sentences imposed between 1972 and January 12021.

Death Penalty Census

Death Penalty Census

Database of more than 9,700 death sentences imposed from June 29, 1972- January 1, 2021

Codebook

Codebook

A comprehensive guide to the Death Penalty Census

On June 29, 1972, the United States Supreme Court decided Furman v. Georgia, striking down all existing death penalty laws in the United States and ushering in the modern era of the U.S. death penalty. In the decades that followed—as jurisdictions revised their death-sentencing procedures in response to the Supreme Court’s rulings on capital punishment—thousands of people were sentenced to death.

The Death Penalty Census is DPIC’s effort to identify and document every death sentence imposed in the U.S. since Furman. The census captures more than 9,700 death sentences imposed between the Supreme Court’s issuance of the Furman ruling and January 1, 2021. These sentences were imposed in 1,280 counties across 40 states, as well as by the federal government and the U.S. Military.


The census tracks every death sentence imposed, listing the name, race, and gender of the person sentenced to death; the jurisdiction (state/federal/military and county/federal district/military branch) in which the charges were brought; the year the sentence was imposed; a multi-sentence code to identify whether the defendant’s death sentence was reversed and reimposed on retrial or resentencing and whether the defendant was also sentenced to death in a separate case; the outcome of the sentence; and the ultimate outcome of the case.

The data reveal that the single most likely outcome of a death sentence imposed in the United States is that the sentence or conviction is ultimately overturned and not re-imposed. Nearly half of the sentences (49.9%) were reversed as a result of court decisions. By comparison, fewer than one in six (15.7%) death sentences ended in execution.


Note: In the graphic above, “On Death Row” refers to active death sentences, plus grants of relief that are still subject to appeal and are therefore not final. Sentences with a final grant of relief, in which the prisoner is awaiting resentencing or retrial, are included in “Reversal” on the Sentences tab, but in “Reversal Not Final” on the Cases tab, because the sentence has been overturned, but the defendant could still be resentenced to death on retrial. The case status number totals on the database view will be different than those displayed in the Tableau visualization above because the numbers are answering slightly different questions. On the Cases tab, the visualization answers “how many cases have a particular outcome?”. The database answers “how many sentences have a particular case outcome?”. The number of exonerations differs from DPIC’s Exoneration List because the Exoneration List includes people sentenced to death before 1972 (if they were exonerated after 1973) and people exonerated after January 1, 2021.

The totals in the above graphic will be greater than the total number of sentences or cases in the database, because some cases are counted in two categories. For example, exonerations are counted in both “Exoneration” and “Reversal.”

In compiling the Death Penalty Census, DPIC started with our existing death-row, execution, exoneration, and commutation databases and our annual tracking of new death sentences imposed in the U.S. We built on that database by obtaining national, state, and county databases from researchers, departments of corrections, legal defense organizations and prosecutors, and advocacy groups. We also conducted our own independent review of media archives and available court records. Where databases employed different definitions or had inconsistent or contradictory data, we reconciled the differences and then engaged in a multi-step process to verify the data.

To DPIC’s knowledge, the Death Penalty Census is the most comprehensive compilation of information on individual death sentences ever assembled. No other database exists that tracks every death sentence in the U.S. since 1972. A project years in the making, the Death Penalty Census is intended to provide clarity on an important, but often poorly or disparately documented, facet of the American legal system. It is our hope that the census database will foster additional research on the subject and enable the public, the media, academics, advocates, government officials, and others working in the death penalty field to engage in educated discourse and make informed decisions.