Academic report

Life After Sentence of Death: What Becomes of Individuals Under Sentence of Death After Capital Punishment Legislation is Repealed or Invalidated

By James R. Acker, Brian W. Stull, on 25 July 2021

More than 2500 individuals are now under sentence of death in the United States. At the same time, multiple indicators—public opinion polls, legislative repeal and judicial invalidation of deathpenalty laws, the reduction in new death sentences, and infrequency of executions—suggest that support for capital punishment has significantly eroded. As jurisdictions abandon or consider eliminating the death-penalty, the fate of prisoners on death row—whether their death sentences, valid when imposed, should be carried out or whether these individuals should instead be spared execution—looms as contentious political and legal issues, fraught with complex philosophical, penological, and constitutional questions. This article presents a detailed account of what has happened historically to persons awaiting execution, principally within the United States but also internationally, at the time capital-punishment legislation is repealed or invalidated (either completely, or with respect to a narrow category of crimes or persons). Our analysis has uncovered no instances of executions being carried out under those circumstances. This finding has important policy implications and is directly relevant to the Supreme Court’s Eighth Amendment jurisprudence, which relies on execution practices as one measure to help inform the Court about whether the death penalty is a cruel and unusual punishment.

  • Document type Academic report
  • Countries list United States