The state of the death penalty in the South a decade after a controversial execution
(This story was corrected on Sept. 25 to reflect the last year Mississippi carried out an execution.)
Ten years ago this week, the state of Georgia executed Troy Davis despite substantial questions about his guilt and calls to spare his life from prominent world leaders including former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Pope Benedict XVI, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa. Though other controversial executions have been carried out since then, this was one of the first cases in the 21st century to get widespread attention over doubt about the conviction.
Davis was convicted of murder in 1991 for the killing of off-duty Savannah police officer Mark MacPhail, who while working as a security guard at a Burger King restaurant was shot when he tried to defend a man being assaulted in a nearby parking lot. Seven of the nine witnesses who identified Davis as the shooter recanted their testimony, and Davis maintained his innocence to his last breath.
His execution on Sept. 21, 2011, came after three previous scheduled executions that ended in stays, one just 90 minutes before the deadline. His death was met with shock and outrage across the U.S. and the world and condemnation from human rights advocates.
"The U.S. justice system was shaken to its core as Georgia executed a person who may well be innocent," Amnesty International said at the time. "Killing a man under this enormous cloud of doubt is horrific and amounts to a catastrophic failure of the justice system."
But a decade later, 11 of the 13 states* in the South still have the death penalty on the books — including Georgia, where earlier this year the state Supreme Court upheld a process that makes it harder for intellectually disabled people to prove their disability in court. The state currently has 45 prisoners on death row. Nationwide, 24 states still have the death penalty, most of them in the South and the West.
Only one Southern state has ended capital punishment since Davis's execution, with Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signing into law in March of this year a ban passed by the legislature. The move made Virginia the first Southern state to repeal the death penalty since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated it in 1976. The only other Southern state without capital punishment, West Virginia, abolished it in 1965. Besides Virginia, four other states have legislatively abolished the death penalty since Davis's controversial execution: Connecticut in 2012, Maryland in 2013, New Hampshire in 2019, and Colorado in 2020.
The South is by far the region that has imposed the most death sentences since 1976 — 1,252 of them, according to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC). That compares to 192 in the Midwest, 86 in the West, and four in the Northeast. Texas alone has executed 572 people in that time.
The death penalty in the U.S. is deeply connected to racism. A report released last year by the DPIC documented how states that had higher numbers of lynchings historically impose the most death sentences today. It also found that almost 58% of death row prisoners are people of color, up from 45.6% in 1980; that 75% of murder victims in cases resulting in an execution have been white even though only half of murder victims are white; and that defendants of color are disproportionately represented among those wrongfully convicted of capital murder and spend on average four years longer on death row than white defendants before being exonerated.
Meanwhile, public support for the death penalty is on the decline. A 2019 Gallup poll found that for the first time the majority of Americans oppose the death penalty in favor of life in prison. And in Georgia, where Davis was executed, 56% of voters now favor replacing the death penalty with life without parole.
Here's where the other Southern states stand on the death penalty:
- Alabama is one of two states, both in the South, where a non-unanimous jury can sentence someone to death; it requires only that 10 of 12 jurors concur. A person can also be sentenced to death in Alabama if they did not kill anyone themselves, as in the case of Nathaniel Woods, whom the state executed last year. When four police officers raided a drug house in Birmingham in 2004, Woods surrendered, but another man came downstairs and shot the officers, killing three of them. The jury voted 10-2 for Woods' execution. Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked Alabama's execution of Willie B. Smith III, ruling that the state Department of Correction's decision to bar Smith's personal pastor from his execution was an infringement of his religious liberties. Alabama currently has 170 people on death row.
- In 2017, Arkansas made headlines for attempting to rush eight executions over a period of 11 days. Though four of those executions did not take place, Arkansas did execute Ledell Lee, who maintained his innocence. In May of this year, new evidence emerged showing that another person's DNA was on the murder weapon, casting new doubt on Lee's guilt. There are currently 31 people on the state's death row.
- The last executions in Florida, the state with the country's highest number of death row exonerations, took place in 2019, when the state took the lives of two people. Last year the state Supreme Court, which has been called the nation's most conservative, reinstated Florida's non-unanimous jury verdict statute, allowing juries to sentence people to death as long as 10 of the 12 jurors agree. Florida has 343 people on death row.
- Since the U.S. reinstated capital punishment in 1976, Kentucky has executed three people, with its last execution taking place in 2008. In 1998 the state became the first to pass a Racial Justice Act, allowing judges to consider whether racial bias was involved in the decision to seek or impose the death penalty. There are currently 27 people on Kentucky's death row.
- Louisiana currently has 65 people on death row. In 2019, a bipartisan group of legislators proposed a bill to abolish the death penalty, but it failed to pass. The state's last execution was in 2010.
- Mississippi currently has 41 people on death row; the state's last execution took place in 2012, when it put six people to death. One death row inmate, a Black man named Curtis Flowers, was exonerated after the state tried him six times for the same crime; four of the trials ended in convictions and death sentences that were later overturned for prosecutorial misconduct, while two ended in mistrials.
- North Carolina has 141 people on death row but has not executed anyone in 15 years. In May of this year, death row exonerees Henry McCollum and Leon Brown — Black men with intellectual disabilities — were awarded $75 million for wrongful convictions after spending over 30 years awaiting execution. North Carolina became the second state to adopt a Racial Justice Act in 2009, but the Republican-controlled legislature repealed it in 2013.
- Though it hasn't executed anyone since 2011, South Carolina recently passed a bill to allow death row prisoners to choose execution by firing squad or electric chair, spurring a lawsuit. There are 39 prisoners on South Carolina's death row.
- Tennessee has executed seven people since 2011 — three in 2018, another three in 2019, and one last year. There are currently 50 people on death row in the state; they include Pervis Payne, a Black man with intellectual disabilities who has always maintained his innocence, and whose sentence has sparked protests across the country.
- The national leader in executions, Texas has already put to death two people in 2021 — Quintin Phillippe Jones, who was Black, on May 19, and John William Hummel, who was white, on June 30. The state has five more executions scheduled for this year, including that of Rick Rhoades on Sept. 28. Questions have been raised about the conviction of Rhoades, who is white, because the state elicited testimony known to be false and because prosecutors may have removed two potential jurors because of their race, which the U.S. Supreme Court prohibited in its 1986 ruling in Batson v. Kentucky. There are 205 people on death row in Texas.
* Facing South defines the region as including Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia.