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Statistics > Death Penalty Statistics

Two-thirds of Americans favor the use of capital punishment. 95% of Chinese people, according to a survey in 2003, also support the death penalty, provided that it is scrutinized and certain to get the right individual. 3,200 inmates were on death row in the United States as of 2008.

As well as Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.

"Pro" Death Penalty Arguments

Social Order and State Sovereignty

Some have argued that the ability of the state to administer executions reinforces its mechanisms of social control and thus indirectly stabilizes its legitimacy in the face of globalization and humanitarianism. The exhibition of human suffering at the hands of the state, as cruel as that may sound, also may strengthen its power. At the very least, the death penalty is the penultimate deterrent of cruelty and social disorder, and a maximization of retribution for victims. Execution is thus the ultimate expression of sovereign authority. As inhumane as the procedure may be, it is far from the inhumanity caused by the victimization of murderers, terrorists, or rapists. Still salient in Americans' minds is the murder of two innocent victims of the Boston Marathon attack that occurred in April of 2013. Indeed, 70% of Americans believe that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the two suspects in the Boston bombings, should be given the death penalty if he is convicted of the crimes he is charged with. Perhaps this case exemplifies only the very few of the "worst of the worst" cases for which execution should be sought. While it is a moral choice for most, many people simply believe that some people deserve to die.

In response to the murder of a 2 year-old girl in Ocean County, New Jersey, in 2011, Senator Robert Singer wrote that he supports the death penalty because "sometimes it is the only way to achieve justice for the victims and families affected by horrible crimes...For certain in prison is just not punishment enough." In other words, the justification for using the death penalty is rare, but it exists, nevertheless.

Some also argue that highly-publicized opposition to the death penalty arises only when the victims come from a middle-to-upper class white background, or when the crimes threaten the dominant social order. In this case, claims of the morality of execution have little weight.

Ensure Procedures Remain Humane

Some supporters of lethal injection concede that flaws are possible during any given execution procedure, but that this can be remedied by exercising diligence and following strict protocols. If this isn't possible, then existing drugs can be susbstituted for more humane drugs currently being used on animals, such as barbiturates, which would simply induce a fatal coma. In this case, however, executioners run the risk of failing to stop the heart until many minutes, even an hour, after the lethal injection is given, which would unnecessarily prolong the death. In any case, however, all states have detailed procedural protocols in place for ensuring the execution is carried out properly under close scrutiny.

"Con" Death Penalty Arguments

The Death Penalty is Unethical

The death penalty has been abused by being used within a research context where medical researchers are involved in the procedure. For example, administrators may vary dose or exposure level experimentally to gain information on the body's reaction to certain extreme forms of stimulation. Moreover, doctors responsible for the execution may not meet the same rigorous standards met by the majority of doctors, since the American Medical Association (AMA) discourages its members from participating in executions.

Procedural Errors and Excruciating Pain

If the sodium pentathol that is administered during the first stage of a lethal injection effectively wears off before the second and third drugs are delivered into the body, the offender could experience excruciating pain which is made worse since the paralytic effect of the second drug (pancuronium bromide) would seize up the vocal chords and make it impossible for the prisoner to express such excruciating pain to staff. Indeed, in 2006, the state of Missouri halted all executions for fear of causing an unacceptable risk of pain. An article in the Lancet, a highly-regarded British medical journal, showed toxicology results suggesting roughly 50% of those executed in four Southern states in the US could have been conscious before the final drug, potassium chloride, had been administered.

The Death Penalty and Wrongful Convictions

Illinois' former governor, George Ryan, halted all executions in 2000 after 13 people were found innocent of the convictions that landed them on death row. Assuming an imperfect judicial system still with major instances of systemic discrimination, there is always the chance that individuals will be wrongfully condemned to death. Governor Ryan granted clemency to over 160 death row inmates before leaving office in 2003.

Methods of Administering the Death Penalty

Lethal Injection

Most US states use lethal injection to perform an execution, a medical procedure that was conceived in 1977 and is used in roughly 98% of death sentences. Lethal injection involves the administration of very high doses of three distinct drugs in separate sequence: sodium pentathol (an anaesthetic that induces a fatal coma), pancuronium bromide (which paralyzes the lungs), and potassium chloride (which causes cardiac arrest). Lethal injection involves medical procedures, which presents at the very least the appearance of humane-ness. George Mercer was the first inmate to be administered lethal injection in 1989, in Jefferson City.

Electric Chair

The state of Illinois adopted electrocution in 1928, replacing hanging. Three prisons soon built electric chairs and death chambers at Joliet, Menard, and Cook County prisons, respectively, over the next several years. The electric chair was suspended in 1962 in Illinois. In New York, the first person to be electrocuted was William Kemmler, way back in 1890.


Hanging was the first and most primitive method of capital punishment both around the world and in the United States. The first person in the modern world known to be executed by hanging was Frenchman Nicholas Pelletier in 1792. In the United States, hanging is still available as an execution method in Washington state and in New Hamphsire. The last people to be hanged in Canada were Arthur Lucas and Ronald Turpin in 1962, before Canada abolished capital punishment in 1976. Hanging was, in fact, the only method of execution ever to be used in Canada, for the 710 executions in that country's history.

Firing Squad

Except for Oklahoma and Utah, firing squads have largely been outlawed as state execution methods. Utah eliminated it as an option for new convicts in 2004, but this ban is not retroactive so it is still an option for those convicted prior to this elimination date. The latest person to be executed by firing squad in Utah (and in the United States, more generally) took place in 2010, where the condemned, Ronnie Lee Gardner, had been sentenced in the 1980s for murdering an attorney during an escape attempt. Despite its disappearance from the United States, however, execution by gunman or firing squad is still the most popular form of execution worldwide, where approximately 2,100 executions take place each year.

The method in detail: Firing squads are usually made up of 4-5 police officers selected by local law enforcement agencies. Soldiers, army cadet, and federal agents have also been known to express interest in participating. The state department of corrections makes the official selection, and relies on the recommendations of other officials concerning the integrity, mental stability, and reliability to carry out the task. The condemned is strapped to a chair (both around his forehead and around his chest) within a special firing chamber (which usually smells of bleach or disenfectants) inside the prison. Sandbags are stacked around him (so that the bullets do not ricochet off the surrounding cinderblock room) a black hood is draped over his head, and a large target is placed over the heart. Sometimes a pan is placed under his body to collect the blood from the exit wound. The inmate usually remains in his prison jumpsuit througout the process. When ready, the officers take positions 25 feet away behind a wall cut with a gunport. He is then is shot once through the chest at medium-range by each gunman. The unpredictability of the blood spatter can be a problem. In Utah, .30 caliber Winchester rifles have been used, where one of the rifles is randomly assigned blanks so that none of the individuals is aware of who fired the fatal shot (Firing squad executes convicted killer, Jennifer Dobner, 19 June 2010, Charleston Gazette).

Other Sources:
Shah, Seema. How lethal injection reform constitutes impermissible research on prisoners. American Criminal Law Review, 22 June 2008
Death penalty still favoured by Chinese, 22 February 2003, Straits Times
Cruel & unusual Is there an execution method that isn't? Now, rulings cast doubt on lethal injection. 2 July 2006, St. Louis Post-Dispatch.



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