According to figures released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, seventeen states executed 74 prisoners in 1997. The number executed was 29 greater than in 1996 and was the largest annual number since the 76 executed in 1955. The prisoners executed during 1997 had been under sentence of death an average of 11 years and 1 month, 8 months more than that for inmates executed in 1996.
At the end of 1997, 3,335 prisoners were under sentence of death. California held the largest number on death row (486), followed by Texas (438), Florida (370), and Pennsylvania (214). Fifteen prisoners were under a federal sentence of death.
After ruling in 1972 that the death penalty was unconstitutional as it was then legislated, in 1976 the Supreme Court upheld revised state capital punishment laws. Between January 1, 1977 and December 31, 1997, twenty-nine states had executed 432 people.
Nearly two-thirds of the executions occurred in five states: Texas (144), Virginia (46), Florida (39), Missouri (29), and Louisiana (24).
At the end of 1997 the death penalty was authorized by the statutes of 38 states and by federal statute. During 1997 there were no successful challenges to the constitutionality of state death penalty laws, and no state enacted any new legislation authorizing capital punishment.
During 1997, 74 men were executed. Of those executed, 41 were non-Hispanic whites; 26 were non-Hispanic blacks; 4, white Hispanics; 1, black Hispanic; 1, American Indian; and 1, Asian. Sixty-eight of the executions were carried out by lethal injection, and 6 by electrocution.
Of the 38 states with capital punishment statutes at the end of 1997, 36 provided for review of all death sentences regardless of the defendant's wishes. Arkansas had no specific provisions for automatic review. The federal death penalty procedures did not provide for automatic review after a sentence of death had been imposed. In South Carolina the defendant had the right to waive sentence review if the defendant was deemed competent by the court. In Mississippi the question of whether a defendant could waive the right to automatic review of the sentence had not been addressed, and in Wyoming neither statute nor case law clearly precluded a waiver of appeal.
While most of the 36 states authorized an automatic review of both the conviction and sentence, Idaho, Indiana, Oklahoma, and Tennessee required review of the sentence only. In Idaho review of the conviction had to be filed through appeal or forfeited. In Indiana and Kentucky a defendant could waive review of the conviction.
The review is usually conducted by the state's highest appellate court regardless of the defendant's wishes. If either the conviction or the sentence is vacated, the case can be remanded to the trial court for additional proceedings or for retrial. As a result of retrial or resentencing, the death sentence can be reimposed.
In 1997 eight jurisdictions did not specify a minimum age for which the death penalty could be imposed.
In some states the minimum age was set forth in the statutory provisions that determine the age at which a juvenile may be transferred to criminal court for trial as an adult. Fourteen states and the federal system required a minimum age of 18. Sixteen states indicated an age of eligibility between 14 and 17.
This article was adapted from the BJS bulletin "Capital Punishment 1997," NCJ 172881.