Is the Death Penalty on Life Support? Three States to Watch this Election

By James Clark, Senior Death Penalty Campaigner, Amnesty International USA

Last week Delaware made headlines when it effectively abandoned the death penalty, making it the 19th state to join the abolition club. Just a few years ago that club was looking a lot more exclusive. These days, states are clamoring to join, and those that aren’t are starting to look like the odd-states-out.

The news out of Delaware comes at a time when states all around the country are asking tough questions about the death penalty. The answers they get are troubling at best, downright shocking at worst, and Delaware isn’t the only state responding by dumping the death penalty altogether. Five other states have done the same thing in recent years, and California and Nebraska are both poised to join after the election in November. Plus, what’s going on in Oklahoma?

Delaware’s court decision actually starts a long way south — in Florida — where the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that juries, not judges, must be responsible for imposing the ultimate punishment. Just three states (Florida, Delaware, and Alabama) have systems in which a judge is allowed to impose death without the jury’s approval.

That ruling meant Florida and Delaware (and maybe Alabama, time will tell) had to rewrite their death penalty laws to comply with the new ruling. Florida lawmakers vowed to make those changes immediately, but those changes have already unearthed a slew of new problems. Delaware is a different story — the legislature there also has the option of re-writing the death penalty, but lawmakers were already on the verge of abolishing the penalty. It’s not likely they’ll reverse course now.

So Delaware joins the ranks of 19 states with no death penalty — but don’t let the numbers fool you. Thirty-one states still have the death penalty on the books, but that doesn’t mean they actually use it. In fact, in 2015 only six states executed anyone at all, and over 85% of executions happened in just three states (Texas, Missouri, and Georgia).

Those numbers are significant: on paper most of the country has the death penalty, but in practice only a tiny fraction of the U.S. carries out executions on a regular basis. Of the 31 states that have the death penalty, 26 executed no one last year. Twelve have not carried out an execution in the last ten years.

That means a majority of states — 31 — have either abolished the death penalty or have not carried it out in over a decade. Three more states are taking a hard look at the death penalty and asking voters to weigh in this November: the states to watch this election are California, Nebraska, and Oklahoma.


The folks on the west coast have voted on the death penalty before. Back in 2012, voters narrowly rejected a proposition to abolish the death penalty and replace it with life without parole. This year, activists are asking the voters to weigh in again, now with four more years of experience on just how broken and costly the death penalty really is. See how you can get involved in the Yes on Prop 62 campaign!

But that’s not all that’s on the ballot this November. Prosecutors have a death penalty proposition of their own, one designed to expand the death penalty even more. Deceptively named the “death penalty reform and savings act,” this law would eliminate appeals and remove protections in place for the wrongfully convicted, even force unqualified lawyers to defend death row inmates whether they want to or not. Amnesty members and our coalition partners are working to defeat this dangerous proposition, click here to see how you can help.


The story of Nebraska’s efforts to abolish the death penalty is a dramatic one. Last year, the state’s unicameral legislature passed a bill abolishing the death penalty in a move that shocked political observers around the country. Legislators who identified themselves as “conservative” even took leading roles in the abolition movement. The governor vetoed the bill, but the lawmakers overrode the veto with a ¾ supermajority, and abolished the death penalty.

But the governor wasn’t done having his say. A billionaire , Gov. Pete Ricketts decided to personally finance a ballot referendum to question the legislature’s decision. He was able to hire enough signature gatherers to put the death penalty on the November ballot and even halt abolition from going into effect (that’s why Nebraska is not included in the 19 states that have abolished the death penalty).

Voters there will decide for themselves if the legislature was right to abolish. This November they’ll be asked whether to retain the legislature’s decision. You can get involved and even phone bank Nebraska voters by joining Retain a Just Nebraska.


Finally, one more state will be voting on the death penalty in November, but the situation there is a little… weird.

For one thing, Oklahoma is one of the most prolific executing states in the country, with the second highest execution rate in 2014. It ended 2015 with only one execution, but that’s because the authorities botched the executions so badly they were forced to call them off. They were moments away from performing a lethal injection on Richard Glossip — who maintains his innocence— before officials noticed they actually had the wrong drug.

That discovery has spurred an inquiry into Oklahoma’s execution protocol that has called into question the state’s competency to perform such an extreme and monumental act as taking a human life.

That’s the backdrop for a ballot question on the death penalty. Rather than seek to abolish the death penalty, though, this ballot question seeks to enshrine it in the state constitution, making it even harder to end the penalty in the future. Despite a system that so clearly cannot function, advocates are desperate to keep the death penalty as they watch the rest of the country abandon it. You can join activists working to defeat this ballot question by checking out Think Twice OK!

There is good news: polling suggests that while a majority of Oklahomans favor the death penalty in principle, they are willing to give it up in practice. That’s because the reality of the death penalty rarely lives up to its promises — with no evidence that the death penalty deters crime, costs that skyrocket far above the cost of lifelong imprisonment, and the constant risk of executing someone who has been wrongfully convicted.

No matter where you live, you can help the abolitionist club take on its two newest members! Sign up for updates from California, Nebraska, and Oklahoma to see how you can get involved and help end the death penalty once and for all!

We've been fighting the bad guys since 1961 - you can join us! Official Amnesty International USA profile.

We've been fighting the bad guys since 1961 - you can join us! Official Amnesty International USA profile.