When Georgia executed Marion Wilson, Jr., on June 20, 2019, it marked the 1500th execution in the United States since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down all death-penalty statutes in Furman v. Georgia in 1972, then four years later permitted executions to go forward under new statutes ostensibly enacted to address the unconstitutional arbitrariness that had plagued the old laws. His execution, analysts say, reflects a number of trends in the modern death penalty and provided a moment in time to consider whether states had in fact redressed the systemic concerns that led the Court to rule the death penalty unconstitutional in Furman.

The Supreme Court has long declared that the death penalty should be reserved for the worst of the worst murders and the worst of the worst murderers. Yet, its critics contend, it is instead imposed arbitrarily based upon race, geography, economics, and the quality of representation. In many respects unremarkable as a capital case, Wilson’s trial, appeal, and execution highlighted those concerns. In 2007, after a two-year investigation into Georgia’s death penalty, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution concluded that “[g]etting the death penalty in Georgia is as predictable as a lightning strike.” As evidence for that conclusion, the paper compared the convictions and death sentences imposed on Wilson and his co-defendant Robert Earl Butts with a nearly indistinguishable murder in a nearby county. Reviewing the same cases in an article on the state of the death penalty at the 1,500th U.S. execution for The Intercept, Liliana Segura wrote: “Their crime had striking similarities to a 1995 murder in a nearby county — one in which two young men killed a college student from Gambia. In both cases, the co-defendants had asked for a ride, then shot the victim and burned the car. In both cases, who exactly fired the fatal shot remained unclear. Yet Wilson and Butts were sentenced to die, whereas the other men received life without parole.”

Wilson’s case also raised questions of disproportional treatment within his own offense: his prosecutor had offered Wilson, but not Butts, a plea deal to a life sentence and Wilson insisted to the moment of his execution that he had not killed anyone. His court-appointed lawyers, who had no death-penalty experience, were incompetent and, Segura notes, one later went to jail. Far from being among the worst-of-the-worst offenders, Wilson had experienced significant trauma and neglect as a child, like a majority of death-row prisoners. However, his lawyers failed to investigate and present this evidence to his jury. As a Black man, Wilson was a member of a minority group overrepresented on death row, and he was executed in the South, where more than 80% of all U.S. executions have taken place.

Donovan Parks, the victim in Wilson’s case, was a prison guard. Every death-penalty state authorizes the death penalty for the murder of law enforcement officers, yet data from more than 40 years and 1,500 executions show that executions have not made police safer. A DPIC review of FBI homicide data found that eight of the nine safest states for law enforcement don’t have the death penalty at all, and the ninth, Wyoming, has no one on death row. The four death-penalty states with the lowest law enforcement victimization rates (Nebraska, Oregon, South Dakota, and Wyoming) have each executed fewer than one person per decade since 1976.

The 1500th execution comes at a time when the death penalty is in long-term decline. While it took the United States seven years to go from 500 to 1000 executions, it has taken twice as long, 14 years, to go from 1000 to 1500. Fewer than 50 death sentences have been imposed in each of the last four years, and those sentences have been concentrated in just a few states. Executions have also become increasingly geographically isolated. In 2018, more than half of all executions took place in Texas, and only eight states carried out any executions.

Even as the number of executions has declined, problems with the use of the death penalty have persisted. With 165 former death-row prisoners exonerated, one wrongfully convicted and death sentenced person has been released from death-row for every 9.1 people executed. Since the reinstatement of the death penalty, more than 200 people have been executed under practices that were later declared unconstitutional. Prior to Atkins v. Virginia, the Supreme Court ruling that banned the execution of people with intellectual disabilities, at least 43 intellectually disabled prisoners were executed. An additional 20 people were executed post-Atkins under a Texas standard that was found unconstitutional in Moore v. Texas. Twenty-two juvenile offenders were executed before the Supreme Court deemed it unconstitutional in Roper v. Simmons. Florida executed 23 people who were sentenced under unconstitutional limitations on mitigating evidence, and at least 90 others were executed in other states that allowed mitigating evidence only if it was causally related to the crime. Another 11 were executed without a jury determination of the facts necessary to impose a death sentence.

Recent executions continue to illustrate serious flaws in death-penalty cases. Of the 25 people executed in 2018, 18 had evidence of serious mental illness, brain injury or intellectual disabilities, or chronic childhood trauma. Four prisoners attempted to waive appeals and “volunteer” for execution – three were executed and the fourth died by suicide.


Liliana Segura, GEORGIA PREPARES TO CARRY OUT THE 1,500TH EXECUTION IN THE U.S. SINCE 1976, The Intercept, June 18, 2019; Catherine Kim, Marion Wilson was the 1,500th per­son exe­cut­ed in the US since 1976, Vox, June 20, 2019; Robert Brett Dunham, A Snapshot in Time: The State of the Death Penalty After 1,500 Executions in the U.S., Death Penalty Information Center Infographics, June 24, 2019; Bill Rankin, Heather Vogell, Sonji Jacobs and Megan Clarke, A mat­ter of life and death: Death still arbi­trary, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, September 232007.