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Geographic Variations in Seeking, Achieving, and Carrying Out the Death Penalty

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Adam Trahan, Kaleigh B. Laird, and Douglas N. Evans

It is tempting to think about the death penalty in broad generalizations. Perhaps the most common generalization we encounter is that America is a “death penalty country.” Much is made about the fact that the United States is one of the last remaining developed nations to execute its citizens. It’s a true statement, of course. In terms of confi rmed executions in any given year, we typically fi nd ourselves around fi fth in the world after countries such as China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan (Amnesty International, 2015). However, characterizing the United States as a “death penalty coun- try” is a generalization that, when explored more closely, starts to lose some accuracy.

It is arguably more accurate to describe the United States as a country with a foot in both camps. Nearly 40% of states are true abolitionist locales. Laws in these states do not allow the death penalty as a punishment for any crime. The remaining states are often labeled as “death penalty states” due to the fact that their laws do allow the death penalty as a punishment for capital murder. Here, however, we encounter another less-than-accurate generalization. Many of the states that do allow capital punishment have not carried out an execution in decades. The last executions in Kansas and New Hampshire occurred before 1976. Colorado, Oregon, Pennsylva- nia, and Wyoming have not had an execution since the 1990s (Death Penalty Information Center [DPIC], 2016a). These states allow the death penalty but can be considered abolitionist in prac- tice. Even in high usage states like Texas, Florida, and Oklahoma, most of the executions that are carried out each year are administered by prosecutors and juries from just a few counties around the state. Of course, it is important not to be reductive about the issue. Some of the county and state governments that regularly administer the death penalty have executed a rather astonishing number of people.

To complicate matters even further, the administration of capital punishment not only varies across space; it also varies across time. That is, the geography of capital punishment is always changing. For example, as we will describe in greater detail shortly, a total of seven states have repealed their capital punishment laws and effectively abolished capital punishment over the past ten years. That number had reached eight total states when the Nebraska state legislature repealed the death penalty in May 2015 (Young, 2015). However, the citizens of Nebraska passed a ballot initiative to reinstate the death penalty about one month prior to our writing this chapter in 2016 (Hammel, 2016). Before 2005, we might have discussed here the geographic differences in charging, sentencing, and executing juveniles in the United States. However, the Supreme Court has since exempted juveniles from capital punish- ment ( Roper v. Simmons , 2005).



Adam Trahan et al.


In short, the geography of capital punishment in the United States is a complicated thing to make sense of. We will attempt in this chapter to provide a portrait of “where” we charge defendants with capital murder, sentence them to death, and ultimately carry out executions that both respects the complexity of the issue but is easy to follow. What we provide here is a portrait of the geography of capital punishment through the end of 2016. We started this introduction by stating that it is tempt- ing to think about capital punishment in broad generalizations. As we explore the differences across space in how we administer the death penalty, it may be helpful to instead think about America’s practice of capital punishment as if it were displayed on a topographic map. That is, our experiences with capital punishment vary considerably across geographic space, with hills and valleys separating a few small locations with very high peaks.

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