Policy Issues


The death penalty is supposed to be reserved for only the worst of the worst crimes. But legally irrelevant factors such as race, geography, and the quality of counsel disproportionately determine who is sentenced to death.

DPIC Report: The 2% Death Penalty

DPIC Report: The 2% Death Penalty

How a Minority of Counties Produce Most Death Cases at Enormous Costs to All

DPIC Podcast: Discussions With DPIC

DPIC Podcast: Discussions With DPIC

Authors of Death-Penalty Study Discuss Tennessee’s ​“Death Penalty Lottery”


A punishment that is administered in an arbitrary way — that is, imposed on some individuals but not on others, with no valid justification for the difference — is unconstitutionally cruel, just as an excessively harsh punishment is cruel. Arbitrary punishments also open the door to racial and other discrimination: if the sentencing authority has inadequate guidelines, prejudice can lead to harsher penalties for disfavored minorities.

If speeders who drove yellow cars were consistently ticketed but speeders who drove other colored cars were not, the application of the speeding law would be considered unfair, even if there were no mention of a car’s color in the law. In a death penalty system in which less than 2% of known murderers are sentenced to death, fairness requires that those few who are so sentenced should be guilty of the most horrific crimes or have worse criminal records than those who are not. A system in which the likelihood of a death sentence depends more on the race of the victim or the county in which the crime was committed, rather than on the severity of the offense, is also arbitrary.

The Supreme Court struck down all death penalty laws in 1972 because their application was arbitrary. In 1976, constitutional guidelines were instituted in an attempt to prevent such capriciousness in the future.

At Issue

More than forty years of evidence strongly suggests that the Court’s guidelines have been ineffective. Irrelevant factors such as race, poverty, and geography still seem to determine who is sentenced to death. Short of applying the death penalty in all murder cases (a path condemned by the Supreme Court), it may be impossible to devise rules that clearly delineate which crimes and which defendants merit death and that juries and judges are able to consistently apply.

What DPIC Offers

DPIC provides statistics on executions, death sentences, and death row that include demographic information on the defendant and victim. DPIC has also highlighted relevant studies demonstrating the continued arbitrariness in the application of the death penalty.

News & Developments


Jan 03, 2024

Overwhelming Percentage of Florida’s Hurst Resentencing Hearings End in Life Sentences

According to new research by the Death Penalty Information Center, 82% of Florida death-sen­tenced pris­on­ers who com­plet­ed new sen­tenc­ing pro­ceed­ings under Hurst v. Florida (2016) have been resen­tenced to life in prison with­out parole. Hurst found Florida’s death penal­ty scheme uncon­sti­tu­tion­al, and the Florida Supreme Court sub­se­quent­ly held that new death sen­tences must be unan­i­mous, neces­si­tat­ing new sen­tenc­ing hear­ings. Of the 157 cas­es DPIC pre­vi­ous­ly iden­ti­fied as…

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Jan 02, 2024

NEW STUDY: Research Suggests the Arbitrariness of Facial Features Affects Jurors’ Sentencing Decisions in Death Penalty Cases

A new study from Columbia University researchers indi­cates that jurors’ per­cep­tion of facial fea­tures in white defen­dants affects their sen­tenc­ing deci­sions, much like the bias­es that affect every day social inter­ac­tions and deci­sion mak­ing. Through four exper­i­ments with 1,400 vol­un­teers, the researchers found that when real-world defen­dants have facial fea­tures that appear untrust­wor­thy, they are more like­ly to be sen­tenced to death than life in prison.” Particular facial fea­tures, such as…

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Dec 14, 2023

Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty Releases its 2023 Year in Review Report

A new report released by the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty high­lights Texas’ con­tin­u­ing out­lier prac­tices in the admin­is­tra­tion of the death penal­ty. As one of just five states car­ry­ing out exe­cu­tions this year, Texas is respon­si­ble for a third of the 24 exe­cu­tions in 2023. Of the eight men exe­cut­ed, six dis­played sig­nif­i­cant intel­lec­tu­al or men­tal health impair­ments, includ­ing brain dam­age, intel­lec­tu­al dis­abil­i­ty, and a range of men­tal ill­ness­es. The vast major­i­ty of…

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Aug 15, 2023

Charles Ogletree, Death Penalty Scholar and Criminal Defense Advocate, Dies at 70

Charles Ogletree, Jr., a pas­sion­ate advo­cate for racial and crim­i­nal jus­tice, died on August 4, 2023, after a long ill­ness. As a tenured pro­fes­sor at Harvard University, Professor Ogletree spoke and wrote often about the death penal­ty and men­tored many stu­dents, includ­ing both Barack and Michelle Obama. In a 2014 Washington Post op-ed, he crit­i­cized the use of the death penal­ty in the United States, par­tic­u­lar­ly for peo­ple with severe men­tal ill­ness, brain impair­ments, or who suf­fer from the…

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