Death penalty

The Medill Justice Project is examining the use of the death penalty in the United States and around the world. As of March 2015, 32 U.S. states have the death penalty, and more than 3,000 inmates sit on death row across the country. Of the 18 states that abolished capital punishment, six states have done so in the past 10 years. Of all 195 countries in the world, about 50 percent of them have the death penalty. In 2014, 22 countries carried out the death penalty and over 2,000 people around the world were sentenced to death. These numbers do not include unreported sentences.

If you have information about the death penalty or have information about a death penalty case, please contact us at, or 847-491-5840.

Data visualization by McKenzie Maxson/The Medill Justice Project

Data visualization by Robin Luo/The Medill Justice Project

The Death Belt

California built a new execution chamber in 2008 at San Quentin State Prison, just north of San Francisco and where over 700 inmates are condemned to die. The state has not carried out capital punishment since 2006 but continues to hand down death sentences, particularly in Southern California courts. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

As the number of death sentences issued in the United States has steadily declined since the late 1990s, a pocket of America designated the new “Death Belt” has bucked the national trend. This new capital of capital punishment isn’t Texas, Florida or other states in or near the Deep South, the regions historically known for their long lines of prisoners on death row. It’s California.

Of the 10 counties in the country that hand down the most death sentences, four are in Southern California: Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Diego. In 2016, California sentenced more people to death than any other state, and eight of the state’s nine death sentences came from counties in Southern California. Although the state ranks 18th in death sentences per capita, the cost of about 750 death row inmates has reached over $180 million annually.

Due in part to ongoing legal battles in state and federal courts, California has executed 13 inmates—over 500 fewer than Texas, the state with the most executions—since the death penalty was reinstated in the United States in 1976. No one in California has been executed in the past 11 years. Because of this, some have described California’s death penalty as a charade perpetuated by aggressive prosecutors. Death penalty advocates, who say California’s system is broken but insist the solution is to fix rather than end it, believe capital punishment delivers justice and enforces community values. By a narrow margin, voters in November 2016 elected to speed up the death penalty process in California. Those against the initiative are challenging the measure in court.

With this upcoming series, The Medill Justice Project features stories about the people of Southern California whose everyday lives are impacted by sentences of death.

With this series, The Medill Justice Project features stories about the people of Southern California whose everyday lives are impacted by sentences of death:

Beth Webb

Kevin Cooper

Father George Williams