Why Does the South Execute the Most?


Randall G. Shelden


I was examining some of the most recent numbers regarding the use of the death penality in America and discovered that, once again, southern states led the way. Since 1976 there have been a total of 973 people executed. Texas ranks first in its use of the death penalty with an average of 12 executions per year between 1976 and 2005.  Virginia, Oklahoma, Missouri, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, and Louisiana round out the top ten, with Arkansas a very close 11th (26 executions since 1976, compared to 27 for Louisiana).  Out of the 973, the South has had 798 (82%); Texas and Virginia combined had 439 (45%).  Only Mississippi (6 executions), Kentucky (2 executions) and Tennessee (one execution) defied the southern domination. A few non-southern states rounded out the top 20 (Arizona, Ohio, Nevada, Utah, Indiana, Delaware and Illinois). A total of 12 states no longer have the death penalty, while New York and Kansas declared the death penalty unconstitutional last year. 

            What do the leading death penalty states have in common that may explain their dominance in the use of the ultimate penalty?  It turns out that they have plenty in common, most of which is not very positive.  In fact, among virtually every indicator of health and well-being, the South ranks at the bottom. 

            For instance, over the years several organizations have been involved in keeping tabs on the country’s well-being.  One such organization is called the United Health Foundation, which publishes a report called “America’s Health: State Rankings.”  They use such indicators as: infant mortality, infectious disease, prevalence of smoking, cardiovascular deaths, motor vehicle deaths, violent crime rates, prevalence of obesity, high school graduation rates, and the rate of uninsured population, children in poverty.  The results of their analysis reveal that the southern states rank at the very bottom in virtually every category.  Louisiana ranks dead last, followed by Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, Arkansas, Georgia, West Virginia, Alabama, Florida, North Carolina and Oklahoma.  Kentucky ranks 39th and Texas stands at 35th.

            Let’s look at homicide, since this is the crime leading to the use of the death penalty. Where do the leading death penalty states rank as far as this crime is concerned?  Surprise, surprise, the South has always stood head and shoulder above the rest of the country having the highest murder rates. In 2003, the south had a murder rate of 6.9 (compared to a rate of 5.7 in the west, 4.9 in the Midwest and 4.2 in the Northeast). The top 15 in 2003 were as follows: Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Nevada, Arizona, Georgia, South Carolina, Illinois, California, Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas, Texas, Michigan, and North Carolina. 

            What might some of the other explanations be?  If you think education would be a factor, you would be correct, as the South has the lowest high school graduation rate in the nation, with South Carolina leading the way (49%), followed closely by Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, and Alabama (ranging from 54% to 57%).  Likewise with infant mortality rates, where eight of the top ten are in the South (Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Arkansas are ranked one through five).

            Not surprisingly, national poverty rates show that southern states have consistently ranked among the highest. Among the top ten we find 8 southern states, according to the latest figures (2002). Arkansas stood at number 1 (18%), followed by New Mexico, Mississippi, Louisiana, West Virginia, Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, Tennessee, and New York. The South also ranks the worst for child poverty rates (8 of the top ten are in the South, with Mississippi and Louisiana ranked first and second). Similarly, the South ranks at the bottom for median household income

            Finally, according to the Morgan Quitno Press annual survey of the “most livable states” (according to a number of different criteria) every southern state except Virginia (ranked 5th best) ranks among the least livable (the bottom 13 are all southern states).

Religion should also be considered, especially the fundamentalist variety. It is no accident that fundamentalism is rampant in the South. Fundamentalism is a form of “Evangelical Protestantism,” and its supporters take the bible seriously and literally.  One writer suggests that they “take their cues from the Bible and its teachings, honoring no other sources and reference points. They have no interest in consulting other authorities or opinions, nor do they entertain any interest in cooperation with other Christian groups. There is only one truth, and only one approved epistemic tool. All others are wrong, whatever they may claim about themselves; they are ultimately deceptive and evil, and doomed to divine condemnation. Compromise is thus a vice, not a virtue, in the moral universe of the fundamentalist.” They are said to number between 10 and 15 million in the South (Hill, Sam. 1998. “Fundamentalism in Recent Southern Culture: Has it Done What the Civil Rights Movement Couldn’t Do?” Journal of Southern Religion. 1:1) Another writer suggest that fundamentalism is “the affirmation of religious authority as holistic and absolute, admitting of neither criticism nor reduction; it is expressed through the collective demand that specific creedal and ethical dictates derived from scripture be publicly recognized and legally enforced.” (Lawrence, Bruce.1989. Defenders of God: The Fundamentalist Revolt Against the Modern Age. San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers). The largest representative of fundamentalism is the Southern Baptist Convention, which started more than a century ago, now boasts of more than 16 million members, most of them in the South.

            It would not be too much of a stretch to suggest that the support and use of the death penalty is strongly associated with fundamentalist religious values, as adherents literally interpret the biblical rule of an “eye for an eye.”