Data from fifty years of the modern U.S. death penalty reveal “a system that is rife with error, filled with discrimination, [and] very, very difficult to fairly administer,” Death Penalty Information Center Executive Director Robert Dunham says in the July episode the Discussions with DPIC podcast. The episode, a discussion between Dunham and 2021-2022 DPIC Data Fellow Aimee Breaux about the launch of DPIC’s groundbreaking Death Penalty Census database, was released July 20, 2022.

The Death Penalty Census database contains information on 9,737 death sentences imposed in U.S. state, federal, and military courts from the time the Supreme Court struck down all existing U.S. death penalty laws in its landmark June 29, 1972 ruling in Furman v. Georgia through January 1, 2021. Launched in conjunction with Furman’s fiftieth anniversary, the census contains the name, race, and gender of each person sentenced to death, the year of each death sentence or capital resentencing, the state or federal jurisdiction and county, federal district, or military branch in which charges were brought, the outcome of each sentence, and the final outcome or current status of each case. To DPIC’s knowledge, it is the most comprehensive compilation of information on individual death sentences ever assembled.

What DPIC found, Dunham said, is that “the death penalty is arbitrary based on place and time. It depends more on what side of the county line a murder was said to have occurred and what year you were tried,” he said. When it comes to race, he said, the data show a race of victim preference in which cases move into the system, after which defendants “are disproportionately likely to be sentenced to death if [they] are a defendant of color … and this is particularly the case when you’re looking at vulnerable populations” such as juvenile offenders and defendants who are innocent or intellectually disabled.

“The main mission that DPIC has had is to make sure that decisions about capital punishment are based on facts, not based on myth or propaganda,” Dunham said, explaining the reasons for undertaking the project. “As we were looking at the data about capital punishment, we realized that there were huge holes that prevented us from doing some pretty significant analyses—we didn’t know how many death sentences had been imposed. And if you don’t know that you can’t tell how reliably the death penalty is being carried out.”

The Death Penalty Census database took nearly five years to compile and proceeded in three stages, Breaux explained. First, DPIC staff merged data from its existing death-row, exoneration, execution, and exoneration databases with national databases created by respected death-penalty researchers. Then, DPIC staff found another 40% of sentences through state and local data collected or maintained by departments of corrections, defense organizations, advocacy groups, courts records, media archives, and individual case research. Finally, staff systematically reviewed the data for accuracy, checking at least 10% of sentences in each state. Still, Dunham said, with a dataset this size there will inevitably be errors and omissions. Dunham urged anyone with additional information or who identifies any corrections to the census to reach out via email to DeathPenaltyCensus@​deathpenaltyinfo.​org.

An initial review of the data showed that fewer than one out of every six death sentences has resulted in an execution. More often, death sentences were reversed. The most common outcome of a death sentence was that the sentence or conviction was overturned in the courts and the defendant was re-sentenced to life or less. To Dunham, this statistic casts doubt on the death penalty as a whole.

“I think that goes to the overall question about whether we can trust the administration of the death penalty — whether we can have confidence that this is a public policy that can be administered in a way that’s accurate, in a way that’s fair, in a way that’s consistent,” Dunham said. “The fact is that there have been nearly 10,000 death sentences. And if we think about this, in terms of transportation — if you think of each death sentence as a trip on a train — you realize the most likely outcome is not that you end up at the station that is designed to go to, but that years pass and after those years pass, you end up exactly where you started. And in most of those cases, you won’t even get back on the train. That’s not how a system should work.”

The Death Penalty Census also provides evidence of the geographic arbitrariness to the U.S. capital punishment system. DPIC’s 2013 report, The 2% Death Penalty showed that just 2% of U.S. counties were responsible for a majority of executions and a majority of people on death row. The Death Penalty Census showed a punishment that was becoming even more geographically isolated. “If you look at death row today, just 34 counties out of the 3400 counties in the United States — fewer than 1.1% of all the counties in the United States — account for half of everybody who is currently on death row,” Dunham said. “2% of the counties account for more than 60% of everybody who is on state death rows. And 82.8% — nearly 83% of U.S. counties — don’t have anybody on death row at all.” Just five counties account for more than 20% of all U.S. executions over the past 50 years, he said.

“We found that arbitrariness is also reflected in death sentences, not just in who’s on death row and executions,” Breaux noted. “Just 76 counties and the federal government account for half of all death sentences. So, for context, that’s about 2.4% of counties and the federal government.”

Breaux urged listeners to explore the Death Penalty Census database on their own. “We see the death penalty census as a resource for the public, for the media, for academics, advocates, government officials — for anyone working in the death penalty field,” she said. “It’s a national database, but it gets pretty local. You can use it to understand who has been sentenced to death in your area, what outcomes, what happened with those sentences. We hope it is a tool that empowers people to uncover more about the death penalty.”


Discussions with DPIC pod­cast, The DPIC Death Penalty Census, Death Penalty Information Center, July 202022.