When the European settlers came to America, they brought with them their laws and punishment system, including the death penalty. According to reports, the first execution to take part on American soil was in 1608 in the British North American colonies. The Jamestown colony executed Captain George Kendall via a firing squad for being a suspected spy for the Spanish government.
Several years on, between 1611 and 1612, Virginia Governor Thomas Dale introduced the first code of laws entitled ‘Articles, Lawes, and Orders Divine, Politique, and Martiall’ (also known as Dale’s Code.) This code was rather similar to Britain’s ‘Bloody code’, in that many minor offences such as petty theft and pickpocketing were punishable by death. It promoted an ruling authoritarian system for the Colony of Virginia, establishing a single ruling group that was able to “hold tight control of the colony.”
The largest execution in the history of the United States was held for 38 Dakota people who were convicted of murder and rape during the Dakota War of 1862. On 26th December 1862 in Minnesota, all 38 prisoners were placed on a four sided platform. With a single blow from an axe to a piece of rope, the platform gave way, hanging 37 of the condemned. The final convicts rope had broken and had to be re-hanged shortly afterwards.
Each colony had their own ideas of punishment, as do the states do today. Whilst some colonies chose to use the death penalty, others saw it in a very dim light, wanting very little to do with its use. Michigan was the first state to abolish executions shortly after entering the United States union, and despite many attempts over the years to change this, the death penalty has remained abolished to this day.
Many other states have a long history of opposing the death penalty, including:
- Rode Island
- North Dakota
- West Virginia
Those states who were in favour of the death penalty held their executions in the public domain. Up to ten thousand eager viewers would stand in the streets to view the hangings, buying souvenirs of the joyous occasion. This carnival type of atmosphere became common with public executions all over the world, turning punishments and death into a public party. People would buy alcohol, and drink in merriment as their entertainment began, pushing their way to the front of the crowd to get the best viewpoint. Fights broke out amongst the crowd regularly, as everyone there wanted the best spot to see the hanging. The intellectual elite of the times claimed the executions to be a cruel and unusual punishment, and as the 19th century came about, this way of thinking was becoming more widespread.
The beginning of the 19th century saw a shift in the perception of the death penalty in many states, particularly in the north east. States began by reducing the number of capital crimes, lessening the punishments for many crimes. As an alternative solution to executions, state penitentiaries were built to house and confine convicts, punishing them with lack of liberty, as opposed to physical pain. In 1834, Pennsylvania was the first state to announce that all remaining executions were now to occur inside the prisons, paving the way for others to follow.In 1838, several states removed the mandatory death sentence in place of a discretionary death sentence, meaning that the courts would decide the punishment they deemed relevant to the crime.
This wave of reformation swept across the country, and by 1849, a total of 15 states had banned public executions and were holding private hangings. In 1846, Michigan became the first state to abolish the death penalty for all crimes bar treason, followed by Rhode Island in 1852. That same year, Massachusetts limited its executions to first-degree murder, classifying the different motives for murder. The following year, Wisconsin abolished the death penalty after an execution went horribly wrong. The rope used was too short, and the convicts neck was not instantly snapped as it should have, but rather he was left struggling at the end of the rope, taking a full 20 minutes to die.
Despite many states opposing the death penalty, there were still many states which were strongly in favour of it. Many states increased the crimes deemed as capital punishment, especially when they were committed by slaves. During the Civil War, the death penalty debates no longer became a priority, as attention was being drawn to the anti-slavery movement instead. The first electric chair was introduced in1890, when William Kemmler was executing using the device, and this form of execution in the US rapidly began to replace the gallows.
The turn of the century brought about a new lease of life for the reformation movement, and by 1917, another six states had completely outlawed the use of the death penalty. However, this reform was short-lived. The US had just entered World War I, and class conflicts arose between the socialists and capitalism, causing a very uncertain atmosphere. In addition to this, fears were mounting of a revolution occurring in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. As a result, five of the six states who abolished the death penalty had it reinstated again by 1920.
During the 1920’s, the state of Nevada pledged to find a more humane way of performing their executions, and introduced cyanide gas in 1924. The first convict to be killed by cyanide was named Gee Jon. Cyanide gas was pumped into his cell whilst he slept, but did not work, due to the gas escaping.
A temporary chamber was constructed in the butchers of Nevada State prison, which contained a wooden chair and a small window beside it, for the witnesses to see inside. On 8th February 1924, Gee Jon wept as he was strapped into the chair, and was told to “Brace up!” by one of the surrounding officers. At 9.40am, four pounds of hydro-cyanic acid was pumped into the chamber, forcing Jon to loose consciousness after around five minutes of inhalation.
The chamber had to be aired out, and so Jon’s body was left in the chamber until 12.20pm, when he was taken to the prison hospital. No autopsy was carried out on the body, for fear that some of the gas would leak out of him, poisoning everyone in the area.
The early 1930’s saw the beginning of the Great Depression, and with it came along the highest execution rates in US history. On average, 167 people per year were being executed by the state, and this continued on into the 1940s, when 1,289 executions took place. It was the 1950s when the public opinion of the death penalty began to change, as they could see that many of their allies across the world had either abolished or limited their death penalty usage. The number of executions dropped dramatically, showing a figure of 715 throughout the entire 1950s, and only 191 in the 60s-70s.
Suspension of the death penalty
During the 1960s there were fundamental changes in the use of the death penalty. Previously, the Fifth, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments were viewed as being in favour of the death penalty. However, it was suggested that the death penalty was a cruel and unusual punishment, making it unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment.
Previously, in 1958 in the Trop V Dulles case (356 U.S. 86), the Supreme Court ruled that it would be a cruel and unusual punishment to revoke a US Citizenship of a U.S citizen. They declared that the Eighth Amendment contained an “evolving standard of decency that marked the progress of a maturing society.” Although this was not a death penalty case, the abolitionists applied the logic to executions, maintaining that the people of the US had evolved beyond barbaric punishments.
There were several further cases which brought the death penalty into question, but none so strong as the landmark cases of Furman v. Georgia, Jackson v. Georgia, and Branch v. Texas (known collectively as the Furman v. Georgia case. (408 U.S. 238))
The issue of arbitrariness had already been under some debate within the Supreme Court. In 1972, Furman argued that capital cases were usually dealt with in a capricious manner, leading to arbitrary sentencing. The court agreed with Furman, in that many sentences were based upon personal whims, therefore setting a standard of a ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’ Viewed as a direct violation of the Eight Amendment, the Supreme Court voided 40 death penalty statutes, and commuted 629 death sentences to imprisonment around the country.
Reinstated Death Penalty
Capital punishment was therefore suspended from 1972, but it did not last long. The American public and media were outraged at the decision to revoke the death penalty. The general consensus of the Furman case was that the problems with the death penalty arose due to specific statutes, and not the punishment itself. The court essentially agreed, and gave all US states the opportunity to either keep the ban on the death penalty or to rewrite their statutes.
A total of 35 states attempted to address the court’s concerns and enacted a new set of death penalty statutes, including mandatory death sentences for certain forms of murder. By enforcing such mandatory sentences, arbitrary decision-making could be eliminated without the need for suspending the death penalty. The first state to rewrite its statutes was Florida, who did this just five months after the Supreme Court’s ruling.
Alongside mandatory sentencing, other states provided guidelines for the judge and jury to follow in capital punishment cases. Such guidelines gave way for mitigating circumstances and aggravation, which added the option of a more lenient sentence, as opposed to the death penalty. These guidelines were approved by the Supreme Court in the Gregg v. Georgia (428U.S.153) case, along side the Jurek v. Texas (428 U.S. 262) and Profit v. Florida (428 U.S. 242) cases – more commonly known as the Gregg decision. The approval of the guidelines demonstrated a constitutional set of death penalty statues, and thus the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in those states and also declared that the sentence was a constitutional punishment under the Eighth Amendment.
On January 17 1977, the first execution since the Supreme Court ban took place in Utah. Gary Gilmore was executed by a firing squad at Utah State Prison after being found guilty of two counts of murder.
On the morning of his execution, he was taken to the death house, which was an abandoned cannery behind the prison. He was strapped into a chair, in front of a wall of sandbags – placed behind him to catch the bullets.
A total of five gunmen stood behind a curtain with five holes, and pointed their rifles through them. Gilmore was asked if he had any final words, to which he famously responded: “Let’s do it.” He was given his last rites by Rev. Thomas Meersman, the prison chaplain, and Gilmore replied: “Dominus vobiscum”, which is Latin for “The Lord be with you”. All five gunmen aimed at Gilmore and fired simultaneously.
The same year as Gilmore’s execution, Oklahoma became the first U.S state to adopt the lethal injection as a primary method of execution. The first time it was put into action was five years later, in 1982 on Charles Brooks.
The Supreme Court has placed two restrictions on the use of the death penalty since the turn of the millennium.
- The first was due to the results of the Atkins v. Virginia (536 U.S. 304) case. It was ruled that the execution of mentally retarded convicts would be a cruel and unusual punishment. To do so would be a direct breach of the Eighth Amendment, so as a result, executing anyone with an IQ below 70 became outlawed.
- The second restriction came about during the Roper v. Simmons (543 U.S. 551) case in 2005, when it was decided that prisoners under the age of 18 at the time of the crime could not be executed. As with the first restriction, it was deemed that executing prisoners who were juveniles at the time they committed the crime was a cruel and unusual punishment, in contradiction with the Eighth Amendment.
Modern state death penalties
New Jersey became the first state to abolish the death penalty after it became reinstated by the Supreme Court. Despite this, the state brought it back from 1982-2007, but no-one was actually executed during this time.
New Mexico also repealed the death penalty statute in 2009, becoming the second state to abolish the penalty since 1976. In this state, executions are replaced with life sentences, without any possibility of parole. Those inmates who were sent to death row before 2009 remain there, awaiting their executions due to the new law not being retroactive.
Connecticut revoked their death penalty in 2012, but as with New Mexico, the law is not retroactive. There are currently 11 prisoners on death row in Connecticut and they are all awaiting their deaths.
The following states do not implement the death penalty today:
- District of Columbia
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- New York
- North Dakota
- Rhode Island
- West Virginia
The Espy File
The Espy File is a database containing all executions held in the US and the colonies from 1608 to 2002. It was created by M. Watt Espy and John Ortiz Smykla and distributed across the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research. Reports claim that the Espy File is incomplete, and that many executions are known of but are not present on the list. Despite this, the Espy File is the most complete list of U.S executions available, demonstrating the long history of American executions.
Click HERE to view the Espy File