Project Overview

The Federal Death Penalty Project is dedicated to documenting and analyzing the history of the federal death penalty.

After fifty years of increased punitiveness, marked by a War on Drugs, aggressive stop and frisk, and mass imprisonment, a broad and powerful racial justice movement is forcing reconsideration of American penal policy.

The role of the death penalty is part of this reconsideration. A generation after Justice Blackmun concluded that he would no longer coddle the delusion that the death penalty could be made fair by “tinker[ing] with the machinery of death,” the end of the death penalty may, finally, be in sight. Twenty-three states have now abolished the death penalty, including eight in the past decade. Several others have imposed moratoria. New death sentences and executions are at multi-decade lows.

Despite, and partly because of, a spasm of federal executions in the waning, erratic, and violent months of the Trump Administration, the federal death penalty is part of this debate.

Remarkably, as we consider the future of the federal death penalty, we know very little about its past. This project began when, in response to the growing discussion around the future of the federal death penalty, I decided to take a look at its past. When I did, I found remarkably little: no carefully compiled compilation of cases and no social scientific analyses of its use. No graveyard; no cemetery records; just bones scattered about.

This website is that graveyard; a place to bring together all of those who have been executed and to see what meaning may be made of their killings.

The most notable pattern I have observed in these cases is the way in which they cluster pretty neatly into distinct eras. Until the Civil War, the overwhelming majority of federal executions were for piracy. In the five decades following the Civil War, almost all federal executions were conducted on the frontier in the western territories of the expanding United States. Only between 1920 and the 1960s was the federal death truly national in scope; used to enforce a growing regime of federal criminal laws and protect a growing network of federal agencies and agents. Most recently, the federal death penalty has focused in a more explicitly political or partisan manner; with a growing number of cases used to impose a death sentence where state law did not make one available and all executions carried out by Republican administrations.

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