Facts & Research

History of the Death Penalty

The death penalty has existed in the United States since colonial times. Its history is intertwined with slavery, segregation, and social reform movements.

There are excellent sources available for those interested in the history of capital punishment. The following pages contain a brief summary of that history, with an emphasis on developments in the United States.

This chart* chronicles the United State’s use of the death penalty over the past four centuries. The chart highlights the gradual rise in use of capital punishment in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries; a peak of executions in the early 20th century; moratorium; and then the resumption of executions after moratorium.

The use of the death penalty has declined sharply in the United States over the past 25 years. New death sentences have fallen more than 85% since peaking at more than 300 death sentences per year in the mid 1990s. Executions have declined by 75% since peaking at 98 in 1999.

For a timeline of significant events in the history of the death penalty in the United States, see DPIC’s Death Penalty Timeline. For dynamic visualizations and more information on executions and new death sentences in the modern era of capital punishment, see DPIC’s Executions and Sentencing Data pages.

This video by Rob Stansfield, PhD of Sociology & Anthropology at University of Guelph, depicts the history of abolition of capital punishment in the United States, on a state by state basis, from 1846 to 2012.

*The statistics used in the chart were primarily compiled from M. Watt Espy and John Ortiz Smylka’s database, “Executions in the U.S. 1608-2002: The Espy File.” (Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research) Periodically, DPIC will feature additional information derived from the Espy file. See also The Espy File.

News & Developments


Oct 13, 2023

New Legal Research Declares Heightened Standards” of Due Process in Capital Cases an Illusion”

In a new law review arti­cle, Professor Anna VanCleave of the University of Connecticut School of Law argues that the height­ened stan­dards” of due process pro­tec­tion for cap­i­tal defen­dants, required under the Eighth Amendment, are in prac­tice no more than a veneer of legit­i­ma­cy and pro­ce­dur­al cau­tion” that fail to vin­di­cate defen­dants’ rights. Professor VanCleave found that in the absence of clear guid­ance from the Supreme Court as to the actu­al mean­ing of height­ened stan­dards,” low­er courts apply the same stan­dards used in non-cap­i­tal crim­i­nal cas­es or even relax rules…

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Dec 07, 2022

As Lethal Injection Turns Forty, States Botch a Record Number of Executions

On December 7, 1982, Texas strapped Charles Brooks to a gur­ney, insert­ed an intra­venous line into his arm, and inject­ed a lethal dose of sodi­um thiopen­tal into his veins, launch­ing the lethal-injec­tion era of American exe­cu­tions. In the pre­cise­ly forty years since, U.S. states and the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment have put 1377 pris­on­ers to death by some ver­sion of the method. Touted as swift and pain­less and a more humane way to die — just as exe­cu­tion pro­po­nents had said near­ly a cen­tu­ry before about the elec­tric chair — the method…

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Nov 07, 2022

Closing the Slaughterhouse: The Inside Story of Death Penalty Abolition in Virginia

Virginia made his­to­ry in 2021 when it became the first Southern state to abol­ish the death penal­ty. Closing the Slaughterhouse: The Inside Story of Death Penalty Abolition in Virginia tells the sto­ry of the commonwealth’s jour­ney from lead­ing exe­cu­tion­er to ground­break­ing abo­li­tion­ist state. Written by jour­nal­ist, author, and anti-death penal­ty advo­cate Dale Brumfield, the book explores Virginia’s his­to­ry sur­round­ing cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment, start­ing with the first exe­cu­tion in 1608 through its abo­li­tion on July 12021.

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Jan 14, 2022

Commentary: Southern Pride,’ White Mob Mentality, and the Death Penalty

The same brand of Southern pride that inspired lynch­ings after the U.S. Civil War fuels sup­port for the death penal­ty today, writes legal ana­lyst Joia Erin Thornton (pic­tured) in a com­men­tary on the web pub­li­ca­tion, Blavity. In The Dark Southern Pride Upholding The Barbaric Death Penalty, pub­lished December 23, 2021, Thornton argues that, just as Southern states in Reconstruction turned to extreme carcer­al pun­ish­ments to reim­pose vio­lent con­trol over Black Americans after the abo­li­tion of slav­ery, Southern states today lead the way in executions.

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Apr 30, 2021

Martin Luther King III: Virginia’s Death Penalty Repeal Shows What is Possible When We Confront This Country’s Racist Past’

The his­to­ry of racial oppres­sion and lynch­ing in the U.S. South has, civ­il rights advo­cate Martin Luther King III writes, too fre­quent­ly … gone untold and unad­dressed.” But, he says in an April 17, 2021 op-ed in USA Today, Virginias repeal of the death penal­ty shows us what is pos­si­ble when we con­front this country’s racist past, and acknowl­edge how racism per­me­ates this country’s prac­tices and laws.”

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Apr 09, 2021

Report: 83% of Death Sentences Have Not Resulted in Executions Under Ohio’s Lethargic’ Death Penalty

Just one out of every six death sen­tences imposed in Ohio in the past forty years has result­ed in an exe­cu­tion, accord­ing to the Ohio Attorney General’s 2020 Ohio Capital Crimes Annual Report. The report, released by Attorney General Dave Yost on April 1, 2021, crit­i­cized the state’s death-penal­ty sys­tem as increas­ing­ly time-con­sum­ing, cost­ly, and lethargic.”

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