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Criminal Justice, Human Rights

Department of Justice: Capital punishment, 2010 statistical tables

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The 1976 Supreme Court decision Gregg v. Georgia overturned the federal moratorium against capital punishment enacted four years earlier, and the policy remains controversial 35 years later for a host of moral and legal reasons. A recent study, for example, noted how bias can still infect capital punishment cases, despite myriad legal safeguards and checks.

A 2011 report by the U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Capital Punishment, 2010: Statistical Tables,” provides detailed information on the capital punishment system in the United States as of 2010. The data include both federal and state data on prisoner demographics, manner of execution, pardons or sentence commutations, and capital punishment trends over time.

Study findings include:

  • The number of new death sentences handed down peaked in 1995 and 1996 (309). There were 104 new death sentences handed down in 2010, the lowest number since 1973 (44).
  • In 2010, 12 states executed a combined 46 inmates — 28 white, 13 black and 5 Hispanic prisoners — while the death sentences of 53 others were commuted or overturned as a result of legal appeals or high court reversals.
  • The time between sentencing and execution has increased relatively steadily since 1977, including a 22% jump between 1989 and 1990 and a similar jump between 2008 and 2009. In 2010, a death row inmate waited an average of 178 months (or close to 15 years) between sentencing and execution.
  • Since 1977, the states of Texas (464), Virginia (108) and Oklahoma (94) have executed the most death row inmates. As of 2010, California (683), Florida (390), Texas (330) and Pennsylvania (218) housed more than half of all inmates pending on death row.
  • Among the 3,173 inmates on death row in 2009-2010, 1,779 were white and 1,318 were black.
  • Of all those put on death row between 1977 and 2010 — a total of 7,879 people — 16% have been executed.
  • In terms of method of execution: “As of December 31, 2010, all 36 states with death penalty statutes authorized lethal injection as a method of execution…. In addition to lethal injection, 16 states authorized an alternative method of execution. Nine states authorized electrocution; three states, lethal gas; three states, hanging; and two states, firing squad.”

Tags: crime, prisons, civil rights

    Writer: | Last updated: January 4, 2012

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    Analysis assignments

    Read the issue-related New York Times article “Lifelong Death Sentences.”

    1. If you were to revise the article based on knowledge of the study, what key changes would you make? What key issues highlighted in the study and article should reporters keep in mind as they cover capital punishment issues?

    Read the full U.S Department of Justice study “Capital Punishment, 2010: Statistical Tables.”

    1. Summarize the study in fewer than 40 words.
    2. Express the study's key term(s) in language a lay audience can understand.
    3. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example: Do the results conflict with those of other reliable studies? Are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)

    Newswriting assignments

    1. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study.
    2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
    3. Interview two sources with a stake in or knowledge of the issue. Be prepared to provide them with a short summary of the study in order to get their response to it. Write a 400-word article about the study incorporating material from the interviews.
    4. Spend additional time exploring the issue and then write a 1,200-word background article, focusing on major aspects of the issue.