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Here's how many people are executed in the US every year

Amid an outcry over the execution of Alabama hitman Kenneth Smith, suffocated with nitrogen gas, here's a breakdown of death row in the US

Kenneth Smith family watched the execution. (AP)
Kenneth Smith family watched the execution. (AP)

A US death row inmate has been executed by being suffocated with nitrogen gas - becoming the first person in the country's history to be put to death in this way.

Kenneth Eugene Smith, 58, was pronounced dead on Thursday evening at the William C Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Alabama. He had been convicted of murdering a preacher's wife, Elizabeth Sennet, in a murder-for-hire in 1988.

Smith is the first person to be put to death using pure nitrogen gas anywhere in the world. In November 2022, the 58-year-old survived a first attempt to execute him by lethal injection, when officials struggled to insert an intravenous line into his system.

Alabama and two other US states have approved the use of nitrogen hypoxia as an alternative method of execution to lethal injection, despite campaigners condemning the method. Smith's legal team had appealed to the Supreme Court but it denied an 11th-hour request for a stay of execution, despite one judge saying Smith was a "guinea pig" for the method.

Smith appeared conscious for several minutes into the procedure. For at least two minutes, Smith made seizure-like movements on the gurney followed by several minutes of labored breathing. He was pronounced dead after 22 minutes. Attorney General Steve Marshall said the method had proved to be "an effective and humane method of execution".

In a final statement, Smith said: "Tonight Alabama causes humanity to take a step backwards. ... I’m leaving with love, peace and light." He made the 'I love you sign' with his hands toward family members who were witnesses. "Thank you for supporting me. Love, all of you," Smith said.

The death shines a spotlight on the US's continued use of the death penalty.

How many people were executed last year?

According to figures from the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), 24 people were executed in the United States in 2023 in five states (Texas, Florida, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Alabama).

Historically, Texas has carried out the most executions following the death penalty, followed by Oklahoma, Virginia, Florida and Missouri.

The number of executions by state in the US in 2023. (Statista/DPIC)
The number of executions by state in the US in 2023. (Statista/DPIC)
Total number of executions in the United States from 1976 to 2022, by state. (Statista/DPIC)
Total number of executions in the United States from 1976 to 2022, by state. (Statista/DPIC)

Between 1976 and 2023, 1,392 executions were carried out via lethal injection, while 163 were executed by electrocution, 11 by gas chamber, three by hanging and three by firing squad.

The total number of executions of prisoners handed the death penalty in the US has fallen steadily in recent years, from 98 in 1999 to 17 in 2020. However, the average time in months between sentencing and execution for inmates on death row in the United States has increased, rising from an average of 95 months in 1990 to 227 months - over 18 years - in 2020.

A 2023 report from the DPIC said people who were executed spent an average of 23 years in prison, the longest average time since executions resumed in 1976, and were an average age of 54 years old at the time of their execution, the oldest average age since executions resumed in 1976 (tied with 2021).

The average time between sentencing and execution for death row inmates in the US. (Statista/DPIC)
The average time between sentencing and execution for death row inmates in the US. (Statista/DPIC)

In 2021, of the 11 executions carried out, six prisoners were black, and five were white. The previous year 10 were white, five black, one hispanic and one from another race.

Those sentenced to death were predominantly male - with 97.9% of the prisoners on death row in 2020 male, compared to 2.1% who were female. The chart above shows the growing length of time inmates spend on death row, with prisoners now facing on average more than four years behind bars prior to their execution.

Which states still enforce the death penalty?

Capital punishment has been abolished in 23 US states, while the governors of six others — Arizona, California, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Tennessee — have paused its use through executive actions.

According to a report from the DPIC, in 2023 only five states (Texas, Florida, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Alabama) executed people in 2023, and only seven states (Alabama, Arizona, California, Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina and Texas) sentenced people to death. For the first time, the number of executions exceeded the number of new death sentences.

How many people are on death row?

According to the 2023 DPIC report, citing data from NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a total of 2,331 people were on death row as of 1 January, 2023, down from 2,436 the previous year. The report said 2023 is the 9th consecutive year with fewer than 30 people executed (24) and fewer than 50 people sentenced to death (21).

Prisoners sentenced to death were predominantly men. (Statista/DPIC)
Prisoners sentenced to death were predominantly men. (Statista/DPIC)

How many Americans support the death penalty

As of October 2023, over half of Americans (60%) still found the death penalty morally acceptable, compared to a third (34%) who said it was morally wrong.

Over half of Americans still found the death penalty morally acceptable in 2023, figures show. (Statista/DPIC)
Over half of Americans still found the death penalty morally acceptable in 2023, figures show. (Statista/DPIC)

However, a 2023 Gallup Crime Survey found that overall support for capital punishment remained at a five-decade low in the US, with 53% of Americans favouring the death penalty - the lowest number since March 1972, although not a statistically significant change from the 54% and 55% level of support recorded over the previous three years.

When Gallup first asked about the death penalty in 1936, 59% of Americans supported it for convicted murderers, the DPIC report found. Public support for the death penalty peaked in 1994, with 80% of Americans in favour, but has steadily declined since then.

The DPIC also cited the Gallup survey's results in its request for opinions about the fairness of the death penalty application in the United States since 2000. It said for the first time, the October 2023 survey reported that more Americans believed the death penalty was applied unfairly (50%) than fairly (47%).

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