In the years between their convictions and their executions, death row inmates don’t usually make the headlines.
Locked away in high-security prisons, often situated in out-of-the-way rural areas, these people are barely allowed to see daylight and their own families, let alone communicate with the public. What’s more, they’re a small fraction of the US’s world-leading prison population of more than 2 million people.
Digging into the statistics of the death penalty, however, reveals a strange, often misunderstood aspect of the criminal legal system. Here are some of the most striking details about capital punishment in America.
There are more than 2,500 people on death row right now
There are at least 2,504 people on death row across America in the federal and state prison systems, according to the most recent NAACP Legal Defense Fund analysis of prison data this spring.
The vast majority of present-day executions take place in Republican-led states in the US South, so it’s no surprise that states like Florida, Texas, and Alabama, have some of the most death row inmates in the country, at 343, 205, 170, respectively. More shocking to some, perhaps, is that California, known for its solidly Democratic politics, has nearly as many on its death row as those three Southern states combined. The state implemented a moratorium on the death penalty in 2019, but still has 704 people on its death row.
But most people on death row aren’t executed
Between 1973 and June 2019, more than 8000 were sentenced to death, but just 1500 of them were killed, one study found. Those who remain on death row but are still alive live in a state of limbo, often battling their cases for decades, living in extreme isolation awaiting their deaths.
For every 8.3 exonerations carried out, one death row prisoner is found innocent
Among those sent to death row in the last five decades, numerous are later found to be innocent, research indicates. And those are just the cases where errors in their case—shoddy police work, coerced confessions, prosecutorial misconduct—were so clear cut they could survive the high bar of the appeals process and be conclusively proven innocent.
As of this February, 1,532 people have been executed since the 1972 Furman Supreme Court decision, which found that the death penalty was unconstitutional, cruel and unusual punishment as it was currently being implemented. At least 185 of those people have been exonerated. The real figure is likely far higher.
The Independent wrote this profile of one such exoneree, Herman Lindsey, who spent more than a year on Florida’s death row for a murder he did not commit—a punishment that still haunts him and affects his life to this day, more than 10 years after he was exonerated.
There are three times the percentage of Black people on death row than white people
The death penalty touches nearly every aspect of the criminal legal system, beginning with policing, making its way through the courts, and ending up in prison—all institutions shown to discriminate against people of colour in myriad ways.
As such, it’s perhaps no surprise then that Black people are vastly over-represented on death row. The US Black population is about 13 per cent in America, according to census data – death row’s Black population, meanwhile, was 41.29 per cent Black people, as of this spring.
Digging into the specifics reveals even more shocking conclusions. Those who kill white people are 17 times more likely to get the death penalty than those who kill Black people, according to a landmark 2020 study.
The death penalty has been this way its entire history, from its origins handing down far more stringent punishments to enslaved Black people during colonial times, to its coexistence for years alongside extra-judicial lynchings in the US South and beyond. Eventually, officials began explicitly arguing for the death penalty as a way to replace lynching.
Those underlying racist impulses persist to this day in death penalty cases. In the case of current death row inmate Julius Jones, who The Independent profiled here, it was revealed that a juror told a counterpart the trial was a “waste of time” and that police should “just take the n****r out and shoot him behind the jail,” but the conviction persisted anyway.
It costs more to kill an inmate than to imprison them for life
Somewhat counter-intuitively, it often costs states multiple times more money to send people to death row, a place everyone theoretically leaves, than to incarcerate them indefinitely. A 2017 found that the average death row inmate costs prison systems more than $1 million more than their peers in the general population. Before California paused executions in 2019, the state spent more than $180 million extra dollars each year on the death penalty, according to a 2011 study. The costs pile up because death penalty cases are long, requiring years worth of costly legal battles, as well as the costs of maintaining death row inmates for decades inside prisons.
Death penalty cases last 22 years on average
Not only do death row inmates spend a seeming eternity in prison before their executions—cases are slowing down even further as time goes on, as states struggle to find suppliers of controversial lethal injection drugs and advocates put more pressure on the justice system to avert executions.
The mean time between conviction and execution has nearly quadrupled since the mid-1980s, for an average of 22 years in 2019, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.
The US is one of only 23 UN member states with capital punishment
“The United Nations says that globally the world is moving away from the use of capital punishment, with 170 of its 193 member countries having already abolished or ceased the use of executions,” as our editors wrote in a recent editorial, announcing The Independent’s formal stance against capital punishment, as part of a campaign with the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice. “The US is increasingly an outlier, alongside nations such as China, Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.”
Capital punishment in America is older than America itself
Any attempts to overturn capital punishment are contending with a deep-seated American practice. Capital punishment for crime is older than the United States itself, with the first recorded execution in North America taking place in 1608 in colonial Virginia.
Donald Trump ordered 13 people executed during the pandemic, a 120-year record
Despite a growing movement against capital punishment, that doesn’t mean the death penalty is set to disappear any time soon. After a 17-year pause, Donald Trump restarted federal executions and killed 13 in the final months of his term. It was the most federal inmates put to death under one president in the last 120 years. The killing spree continued even after Mr Trump lost the election in November to Joe Biden, who campaigned against capital punishment.
Americans are still split on the death penalty, but growing more open to changes
Public support for the death penalty been declining for decades since its peak in the ‘90s. Depending on which poll you use, either a 60 per cent majority, or a 39 per cent minority, support alternatives to capital punishment over the death penalty for convicted murders. That’s all to say perhaps what we’ve always known: capital punishment is deeply controversial. What’s new is that more and more people are starting to question it.