Capital punishment by the United States military

Capital punishment is a legal penalty under the U.S. military criminal justice system. Despite its legality, capital punishment has not been imposed by the U.S. military in over sixty years.

United States Penitentiary, Terre Haute houses the primary execution chamber for military executions.

Reinstatement of the military death penaltyEdit

Nidal Hasan when he was still in the military.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces ruled in 1983 that the military death penalty was unconstitutional, and after new standards intended to rectify the Armed Forces Court of Appeals' objections, the military death penalty was reinstated by an executive order of President Ronald Reagan the following year.[1]

On 28 July 2008, President George W. Bush approved the execution of Former United States Army Private Ronald A. Gray, who had been convicted in April 1988 of multiple murders and rapes. A month later, Secretary of the Army Pete Geren set an execution date of 10 December 2008 and ordered that Gray be put to death by lethal injection at the Federal Correctional Complex, Terre Haute. The military publicly released Gray's execution date on 20 November 2008. On 26 November, however, Gray was granted a stay of execution by U.S. District Judge Richard Rogers of Kansas.[2] In December 2016, a Kansas federal judge, US District Judge J. Thomas Marten, lifted Gray's stay, moving Gray one step closer to becoming the U.S. military's first death sentence carried out since 1961.[3]

The U.S. Military currently has four inmates (all men) on death row, the most recent being Nidal Hasan, who murdered 13 people and injured 32 others during the 2009 Fort Hood mass shooting.[4]

Capital crimesEdit

Currently, under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, 14 offenses are punishable by death. Under the following sections of the UCMJ, the death penalty can be imposed in both times of war and peace:

Another four provisions of the UCMJ carry a death sentence only if the crime is committed during times of war:

  • 85 – Desertion
  • 90 – Assaulting or willfully disobeying a superior commissioned officer
  • 106 – Lurking as a spy or acting as a spy
  • 113 – Misbehavior of a sentinel or lookout

Legal processEdit

United States Disciplinary Barracks houses men on military death row.
All female prisoners in the DOD serve time at Naval Consolidated Brig, Miramar (therefore female military service members under death sentence would await execution here).

Capital cases are tried in courts-martial before a panel of at least 12 military members. If the defendant is an enlisted service member, he or she may opt for at least one-third of the panel to also be of enlisted rank. All members of the panel must outrank the accused.[citation needed] The defendant cannot plead guilty to the charges. A two-thirds majority is enough for conviction, but unanimity is required to issue a death sentence during the penalty phase of the proceeding.

All death sentences are automatically appealed, first to the Court of Criminal Appeals for the military service concerned, then to the United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces. The sentence must be personally confirmed by the President of the United States.

Military executions would be conducted under regulations issued on 17 January 2006,[6] and would ordinarily take place at the Special Housing Unit of the United States Disciplinary Barracks (USDB), Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, although alternative locations are possible (such as the Federal Correctional Complex, Terre Haute, Indiana, where federal civilian death-row inmates are housed and executed). Of four convicted servicemen awaiting execution, three are confined at the USDB's Special Housing Unit and one at Camp Lejeune, all of whom have been convicted of murder.[citation needed]

Until 1961—the last military execution to date—hanging was the sole and official method. Later the military introduced the electric chair, which was never used.[7] Currently, lethal injection is the only method.[8]

Separately, military commissions may be also established in the field in time of war to expeditiously try and sentence enemy military personnel under the UCMJ for certain offenses.[9]:5[10]:16–18 Controversially, the Military Commissions Act of 2009 allows military commissions to try and sentence "'alien unprivileged enemy belligerent[s]'" accused of having "'engaged in'" or "'purposefully and materially support[ed] hostilities'" against the United States or its allies, without the benefit of some UCMJ protections.[9]:7–9 In a military commission trial, the death penalty may only be imposed in case of a unanimous verdict and sentencing decision.[9]:31

Previous useEdit

The Creek WarEdit

In 1814, Private John Wood was executed by a firing squad for assaulting a superior officer.

American Civil WarEdit

Union General William Rosecrans approved the court-martial and hanging of two Confederate officers, Lawrence Orton Williams and Walter Peters, on June 9, 1863 at Franklin, Tennessee, after the duo had disguised themselves as Union officers for the purposes of spying.[11][12]

On June 20, 1864, Union Army deserter William Johnson was hanged in Petersburg, Virginia.

On March 15, 1865, Confederate captain Marcellus Jerome Clarke was hanged in Kentucky for guerrilla activities.

On March 25, 1865, Confederate captain Robert Cobb Kennedy was hanged in New York City for spying.

In July 1865, four involved in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln were executed in Washington D.C. by hanging.

On September 6, 1865, two Union soldiers were hanged in Ohio for the murder of a military policeman.[13]

On October 20, 1865, Confederate war criminal Champ Ferguson was hanged in Tennessee on murder charges.

On October 29, 1865, Henry Magruder was hanged in Kentucky for guerrilla activities.

On November 10, 1865, Henry Wirz, Confederate commander of Camp Anderson (aka Andersonville POW camp) was tried, convicted and executed by hanging.

First World WarEdit

The United States Army executed 35 soldiers during the First World War by hanging between November 5, 1917 and June 20, 1919, all for offenses relating to murder or rape. 11 of these hangings were performed in France while the remaining 25 were carried out in the continental United States.[Note 2][14][15]


The U.S. military executed 160 American servicemen between 1942 and 1961. There have been no military executions since 1961, although the death penalty is still a possible punishment for several crimes under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Of these executions, 157 were carried out by the United States Army, including members of the United States Army Air Forces prior to September 1947. After becoming independent of the U.S. Army on September 18, 1947, the United States Air Force conducted the three remaining executions, one in 1950 and two in 1954. The United States Navy has not executed any of its own sailors since 1849.

Of the total, 21 were executed for both rape and murder, 85 for murder, 53 for rape, and one (Private Eddie Slovik) for desertion.[16]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Unlike the other capital offenses under the UCMJ, the text of Article 120 does not explicitly state that the death penalty is available; such language was removed in a 2007 revision. However, the revision stated that the maximum penalty remained death until the President specified otherwise.[5] Subsequent Manuals for Courts Martial, issued under the President's authority, continue to describe the maximum penalty for rape as death. See Manual for Courts-Martial (2012) Appendix 28(f)(1).
  2. ^ See Houston riot of 1917.


  1. ^ The U.S. Military Death Penalty, Death Penalty Information Center
  2. ^ "Military sets date for first execution since 1961". Associated Press. November 20, 2008.
  3. ^ "Judge Lifts Execution Stay for Ex-Soldier in Military Prison". December 28, 2016.
  4. ^ Kenber, Billy (2013-08-28). "Nidal Hasan sentenced to death for Fort Hood shooting rampage". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2021-05-04.
  5. ^ National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2006, PL 109–163, January 6, 2006, 119 Stat 3136, §552(b).
  6. ^ regulations
  7. ^ Baldor, Lolita C. (June 29, 2006). "Iraq murder charges raise specter of rarely used military death sentence". Associated Press. Archived from the original on 2010-01-30.
  8. ^ Browne, Ryan (2016-12-28). "US military could carry out first execution in over 50 years". CNN. Retrieved 2020-10-31.
  9. ^ a b c Elsea, Jennifer K. (2014-08-04), "The Military Commissions Act of 2009 (MCA 2009): Overview and Legal Issues" (PDF), CRS reports, Washington, DC, United States: Congressional Research Service, OCLC 1107881258, R41163 version 9, archived from the original on 2021-01-12, retrieved 2021-01-12
  10. ^ Elsea, Jennifer K. (2001-12-11), "Terrorism and the Law of War: Trying Terrorists as War Criminals Before Military Commissions", CRS reports, Washington, DC, United States: Congressional Research Service, OCLC 65213199, RL31191, retrieved 2021-01-12
  11. ^ executed today Williams and Peters
  12. ^ Execution of Williams and Peters
  13. ^ ODMP memorial John B. Cook
  14. ^ The Milwaukee Sentinel July 5, 1918
  15. ^ Establishment of Military Justice – Proposed Amendment of the Articles of War, Thursday September 25, 1919. United States Senate, Subcommittee on Military Affairs, Washington, D. C. (
  16. ^ "Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2000" (PDF). U.S. Census Bureau. p. 223.

Further readingEdit

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