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Sentencing in the South: Capital Punishment

Since 1976, the Supreme Court of the United States has allowed individual states to decide whether to allow death penalty sentencing. Two-thirds of the executions in the past generation have occurred in only five of the 35 states that authorize the death penalty: Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas and Virginia.

Since 1976, Texas alone has executed 464 prisoners – more than four times the number of executions in Virginia, the state with the second most executions in the same time, at 108 prisoners.


What might account for these dramatic differences between the states? In part, the disparity may be race-related. In the pre-Civil War era, death penalty eligibility varied by race in many states. For example, black defendants may have been eligible, upon conviction, for the death penalty for an array of offenses while white defendants were only eligible for homicide offenses.

The Thirteenth Amendment made unequal sentencing statutes unconstitutional. However, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, race still plays a role in capital punishment. Currently, 56 percent of executed defendants are white and 35 percent are black. Yet while overall only 50 percent of murder victims are white, over 75 percent of murder victims in cases resulting in execution were white.

Southern Protestant fundamentalism may contribute to the disparities, as numerous sociological studies positively correlate this characteristic with support for the death penalty. Yet another view is that Southern “honor culture” contributes to a distinctively Southern subculture of violence – whether measured by high homicide rates, gun ownership rates, or retaliatory attitudes toward interpersonal violence.

Polls in the United States suggest that currently, more than 70 percent of the population support capital punishment; this figure has been increasing from about 45 percent in the 1960s. Demographically, white Southern and Republican men of middle income support the death penalty in disproportionate numbers.

The U.S., Japan and South Korea are the only established democracies that impose capital punishment.


Consistent with previous years, the 2009 FBI Uniform Crime Report shows that the South, which accounted for over 80 percent of executions, had the highest murder rate. In comparison, the Northeast, which accounted for less than one percent of all executions, has the lowest murder rate.

Those who have been charged with capital crimes should seek immediate representation to protect their constitutional rights. An experienced criminal defense lawyer can negotiate before court or argue at trial against the imposition of the death penalty.

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