The acceptance of capital punishment, or the death penalty, as a sentence for heinous criminal acts has been hotly debated across the nation over the last few decades. On the books in most states, the death penalty has been challenged by many, originally on grounds that it violated the Constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, and later on the procedural grounds that there were not enough due process protections for defendants accused of capital crimes. In general, it was held that since the sentence was so severe, the law must impose the strictest standards of proof to sentence a defendant to death. Consequently, many states have gone through periods in which the death penalty was held as legal, then illegal, then revised and held as legal, then illegal again, and then further revised and held as legal once more. This shifting status often brought unbalanced—unjust—sentencing. For instance, in many of these states one of two defendants accused of identical unrelated crimes committed within weeks of each other drew the death sentence while the other did not, merely because the statute under which they were sentenced was ruled unconstitutional in the intervening time.
The Supreme Court has since handed down explicit guidelines defining the legal imposition of the death penalty, allowing states a new opportunity to legislate a legal death penalty statute that is less likely to be ruled unconstitutional in the future. This does not mean that the process is not still open to attack. As of this writing, new cases on the death penalty are currently wending their way through the courts to the Supreme Court.
Thirty-eight states currently have death penalty statutes on the books. In a few states, the statute remains on the books though it has been declared unconstitutional. In some of these cases, the state legislature can either revise or rewrite the death penalty statute if it chooses to make it the law.
There are twelve states that authorize the death penalty for non-homicide crimes. Of note is California, often known for its radical politics, which lists treason as a capital crime. Other common non-homicide capital offenses are kidnapping, hijacking, and other serious crimes that involve hostage-taking or placing a victim in extreme danger.
In the last few years, the method of execution has become the most controversial element of death penalty statutes. Four states have changed their method of execution. While three states, Kentucky, New York, and Ohio, have changed from electrocution to lethal injection, one state, Georgia, has changed from lethal injection to electrocution. Recent and pending court decisions may influence additional states to alter their prescribed methods of execution.
Some states have very complicated criminal statutes; therefore, the following tables may contain less information on some states if nothing explicit can be determined from the state statute alone. Occasionally it is necessary to consult lists or sentencing guidelines that are not part of the code to determine these rules.