The Death Penalty in Dark Times: What Crises Do (or Do Not Do) to Capital Punishment

38 Pages Posted: 7 Sep 2021

Date Written: August 9, 2021


The COVID-19 pandemic temporarily stopped executions in the United States and played a part in a record low number of death sentences handed down in 2020. While many newspapers reported on the pandemic-related disruption of individual executions and court proceedings, little attention has been given to understanding whether other crises in American history have similarly disrupted the death penalty. This paper examines execution data from several major crises in American history – wars, economic downturns, and pandemics – to assess whether COVID-19’s disruption of the American death penalty represents an anomaly among pandemics and other crises. As we will show, the death penalty has shown remarkable resiliency. Through all manner of national disruptions, with the exception of the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, America’s execution machinery has kept on running. This fact is one indication of this nation’s attachment to capital punishment.

Keywords: capital punishment, crisis, war, economic downturns, pandemics

JEL Classification: K14

Suggested Citation

Sarat, Austin and Kyle, Ryan, The Death Penalty in Dark Times: What Crises Do (or Do Not Do) to Capital Punishment (August 9, 2021). Available at SSRN: or

Austin Sarat (Contact Author)

Amherst College ( email )

Political Science Box 2259
Amherst, MA 01002
United States
413-542-2308 (Phone)

Ryan Kyle

Amherst College

United States

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