Exploring the Legal System on Death Row in the USA

Exploring the Legal System on Death Row in the USA

Recent high-profile cases involving innocent prisoners on death row have raised concerns about the current system’s effectiveness. Although racial and ethnic disparities exist in the universe of federal cases that can be submitted for the death penalty, current Justice Department procedures shield review committee members and the Attorney General from information about such details.

Death Row Populations by State

While the death penalty is used less often at the state level, it continues to be used at the federal level. The Biden administration has halted executions and has begun to review the federal death penalty system.

At the state level, several factors affect the number of prisoners on death row USA and how quickly they are executed once they are sentenced to death. A substantial portion of prisoners’ time on death row is due to delays in the trial process, post-conviction appeals, and the lack of lethal injection drugs.

The 37 states that still have capital punishment, the death row population is loosely proportional to state murder rates and population. The most populous states, including California, Texas, and Florida, have large death rows. Wyoming, the least populous state, has only one condemned prisoner. A significant portion of the population in the United States is opposed to the death penalty. Opinions vary greatly by political party, age, education, race, and ethnicity. Republicans and Republican-leaning independents are much more likely to support the death penalty for convicted murderers than Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents. Those with less formal education are also more likely to support the death penalty, as are white adults.

The most common method of execution in the 27 states still has it is lethal injection. However, some pharmaceutical companies refuse to supply the necessary drugs, forcing states to use methods that may be considered less humane. Recidivism among convicted murderers occurs, but government data show that it is less frequent than is widely believed and that death row prisoners are no more likely to murder after they are released from prison than those who are never sentenced to death.

Death Sentences by Geographic Locality

When the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, it did so with the requirement that it be fairly and consistently administered. Yet, large differences exist in how and where the death penalty is imposed. These differences are not simply a function of state population, murder rates, and laws but also have to do with the individual prosecutor’s philosophy and commitment to seeking the death penalty and the available jurisdictional resources and cost. These factors, in turn, are affected by the influence of higher-level political agencies such as the U.S. Attorney General’s office.

For example, prosecutors in Philadelphia seek the death penalty in most cases that technically qualify. In contrast, in Pittsburgh, the district attorneys are much less committed to seeking the death penalty and have fewer resources to cover their efforts. As a result, the number of death sentences in Philadelphia is far greater than in Pittsburgh. Similar disparities exist on a national scale. A 2000 Department of Justice survey found that large geographic disparities exist in how often U.S. Attorneys recommend federal capital prosecutions. The study also reported that, from 1995 to 2000, prosecutors in the five most populous districts were 1.7 times more likely to recommend death penalty prosecutions than prosecutors in the ten least populous districts.

The extent to which regional variation exists also suggests arbitrariness in applying the death penalty. This is especially true in cases involving federal death penalty prosecutions where the decision to pursue the penalty rests with the Attorney General. During the Bush Administration, Attorneys General John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzales took steps to make the federal death penalty more aggressively pursued. 

Death Penalty in the U.S.

Twenty-seven states and the federal government use the death penalty. Some states (including Alabama, California, and Texas) have large death row populations. The death penalty is the most severe punishment a state can impose. It is only available for certain crimes, including murder and rape. The Supreme Court oversees the use of the death penalty to ensure that it adheres to the constitutional principles of due process. The Court has issued several rulings protecting rights involved in capital offense cases, including the selection of jury members and the conduct of prosecution witnesses.

The Court’s decisions can also affect methods of execution and the competency of defense counsel. In some cases, the Court has found that executing an inmate who is found to be developmentally disabled violates the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. In other cases, the Court has held that it is appropriate to conduct hearings to reconsider whether an inmate labeled as developmental disabled should be executed. In recent years, public support for the death penalty has fallen significantly. Phone polling conducted by the Pew Research Center shows that more Americans now oppose rather than support the death penalty. This is most likely tied to a growing view that the death penalty does not serve as a deterrent against serious crime.

Will Smith

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