The Federal Death Penalty: An Overview


• The first Congress of the United States authorized the federal death penalty on June 25, 1790. Since then, there have been 343 federal executions, two of which were women.

• The federal death penalty was reinstated in 1988, after a 16-year moratorium beginning in 1972, following Furman v. Georgia.

• As a result of the Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994, virtually every homicide of the roughly 16,000 occurring in the U.S. each year is now death-eligible, yet the death penalty’s application has been spotty, though not random.

• Between 1995 and 2000, federal juries chose life sentences over death sentences by a ratio of 5 to 4. In the first decade of the 21st century, that ratio increased to more than two life sentences for every death sentence.

• Since 1988, the federal government has taken to trial a total of 182 federal death penalty cases involving 270 defendants. These 270 defendants were culled from a larger pool of 467 against whom the Attorney General had authorized the government to seek the death penalty. Excluding 26 defendants who are awaiting or currently on trial on capital charges, 210 of the remaining 441 defendants avoided trial by negotiated plea, when the government dropped its request for the death penalty without a plea agreement, dismissed charges entirely, or the judge barred the death penalty. Thirteen were found not guilty of the capital charge. Two were declared innocent. Charges were dismissed against a third when grave questions were raised about his guilt. One death row inmate was granted clemency.

• In cases where juries actually reached the point of choosing between life and death, they imposed 138 life sentences and 69 death sentences.

• Three people have faced execution by the federal government since 1988:
  • Timothy McVeigh - Executed on June 11, 2001
  • Juan Raul Garza - Executed on June 19, 2001
  • Louis Jones - Executed on March 18, 2003

Race and Geography:

• Six of the 94 federal judicial districts account for one-third of death authorizations. More than half of all death authorizations come from 14 federal districts.

• A disproportionate number of federal death sentences are located in districts where the decision to prosecute federally transformed the jury pool from predominantly black to predominantly white. When prosecutors make the choice to charge an offender with a federal crime, the trial’s prospective jury pool expands from the residents within the county where the crime was committed to the residents of the considerably larger federal judicial district encompassing it. Jury pools in federal judicial districts are consistently less diverse than those communities most affected by violent crime within them.

• Of the total of 467 defendants against whom the Attorney General has authorized the government to request the death penalty since 1988, 122 have been white, or 26%, 86 Hispanic, or 18%, 18 Asian/Indian/Pacific Islander/Native American, or 4%, 3 Arab, or 1% and 238 African-Americans, or 51%.

• 345 of the 467, or 74%, of the defendants approved for a capital prosecution by Attorneys General to date are members of minority groups.

• 37 of the 60 defendants now on federal death row under active death sentences, or 62%, are non-white. 35 or 58% of federal death row were convicted of killing whites.

• The U.S. Justice Department issued a report a decade ago analyzing the government’s use of the federal death penalty between 1988 and 2000. The study found that, between 1995 and 2000, 80% of all cases in which a U.S. Attorney requested permission to seek the death penalty involved a minority group defendant; 72% of the cases where the Attorney General authorized a capital prosecution involved minority group defendants; and U.S. Attorneys sought death-authorization twice as often in cases involving black defendants and non-black victims as in cases involving black defendants and black victims.

Additional Resources:

The Federal Death Penalty System: A Statistical Survey (1988 – 2000)
A statistical survey commissioned by former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno that revealed racial and geographic disparities in the federal death penalty.

In response to the report, current Attorney General Eric Holder, then a deputy to Janet Reno, said, “I can't help but be both personally and professionally disturbed by the numbers that we discuss today...[N]o one reading this report can help but be disturbed, troubled, by this [racial and ethnic] disparity."

Crossing Racial Boundaries: A Closer look at the roots of racial bias in capital sentencing when the defendant is black and the victim is white (2004).
By William J. Bowers

The Racial Geography of the Federal Death Penalty (2010)
By G. Ben Cohen & Robert J. Smith

Data and statistics used here were gathered from the above resources, the Death Penalty Information Center, and the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel. This page was last updated in February 2011.


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