The project is a data set of every death sentence handed down in the U.S. since July 3, 1976 – the year capital punishment was reauthorized by the U.S. Supreme Court – by the country’s 29 active death penalty states and the federal government. In all there are 7,335 individual entries. The data set is accompanied by four written pieces that provide context for the project, including explaining the Supreme Court’s historic death penalty decisions and how the responses among different states led us to where we are today.
The final data set reveals the U.S. experiment with capital punishment is a failed public policy. We’re told that the death penalty is necessary to punish the worst of the worst. But what our data set shows is that the single largest group within the data are individuals who are no longer on death row, but for some reason other than execution. This group is comprised of 3,135 individual entries — the majority of these people have been resentenced to a lesser term in prison; hundreds have been freed; at least 132 were exonerated of the charges against them. And although the project was only very recently released, it has already had considerable impact. Lawyers have reached out to say that they will be using the data in litigation and related activities; news outlets have used the data to inform their own stories on the death penalty. And researchers are using our data to enhance their own work.
During data gathering, research, and analysis phases of the project the team used a mix of off the shelf software and custom project specific software. Google Sheets, Microsoft Excel, and Open Refine are some of the off the shelf tools used to manage the data compilation, cleaning and analysis. Custom software was also written by the research team to scrape, standardize and clean data. The team also built tools to OCR records that were provided in non-digital formats. The research team also built additional tooling to prepare the data for publishing and to push it Github.
What was the hardest part of this project?
The hardest part of this project was collecting the data. Despite the gravity of the government’s responsibility to ensure capital punishment is carried out in a manner that aligns with statute, we found that the state of record keeping on individuals sentenced to die was abysmal in all but a handful of states. It took nearly three years to collect accurate information on the individuals contained in the data set, to correct errors and inconsistencies contained therein, and to fill in gaps in the data, a process aided by a network of attorney sources who are involved in capital litigation and through extensive online research. The result is a first-of-its-kind dataset that reveals details about every individual sentenced to death in active death penalty jurisdictions.
What can others learn from this project?
Broadly speaking, people can get a fuller picture of the way the death penalty has been applied in their state and why it is a failed policy. They can also learn more about the individuals who have been condemned to die in this country — their names, ages, race, and any other aspects of their cases they might want to research on their own. Above all, The Intercept’s death-row dataset was designed as a tool and a living document, available on Github, that we will continue to update as new death sentences are meted out, old convictions are overturned, and executions continue.