The history of the death penalty in the USA
The first verifiable death penalty law dates back to the 18th century B.C. and comes from the Code of King Hammurabi of Babylon. According to it, 25 types of crimes were punishable by death. In the 7th century BC, the death penalty was for any crime. Crucifixion, drowning, beating to death, burning alive and impalement were the methods by which the death penalty was carried out in the 5th century BC.
In the 10th century AD, hanging became the common method of execution in Britain. William the Conqueror allowed executions only in time of war in the following century, but that changed drastically under Henry VIII in the 16th century. Under his reign, an estimated 72,000 people were boiled to death, burned at the stake, hanged, beheaded, stretched and quartered. Marriage to a Jew, refusal to confess to a crime, and treason were punishable by death.
In 1700, 222 crimes were punishable by death in Britain, including theft, cutting down a tree, and stealing a rabbit warren. However, because of the harshness of the death penalty, many juries eventually refused to convict a defendant if it was only a less serious crime. This led to reforms in British capital punishment laws. From 1823 to 1837, the 222 crimes punishable by death were reduced to 100.
Britain’s influence on America’s death penalty
Britain influenced America’s death penalty more than any other country. When European settlers came to the New World, they brought the death penalty with them. The first recorded execution in the new colonies was that of George Kendall in Virginia’s Jamestown Colony in 1608. Kendall was forced to die for being a spy for Spain. In 1612, Virginia’s governor Sir Thomas Dale enacted laws that also executed those who stole grapes, killed chickens, or traded with the Indian inhabitants.
Death penalty laws varied from colony to colony. In New York, laws were enacted in 1665 under which the death penalty was also provided for beating one’s mother or father or for denying the “true God.”
The roots of the anti-death penalty movement in Europe lie in texts by Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Bentham, as well as the English Quakers John Bellers and John Howard. But it was the treatise “On Crime and Punishment” by Cesare Beccaria in 1767 that had a particularly strong influence around the world. Beccaria wrote that there was no justification for a state to kill.
In 1924, cyanide gas was introduced in the United States when the state of Nevada sought a more humane method of execution for its prisoners. Gee Jon was the first person gassed. The state initially tried to pump cyanide gas into Jon’s cell while he slept, but this proved unfeasible. Eventually, the gas chamber was constructed.
By 1950, public attitudes were slowly trending against the death penalty. Many allied nations had either abolished or curtailed capital punishment altogether, and the number of executions in the United States was also diminishing. In the years around 1940, there were still 1,289 executions; ten years later, there were 715, and the number dropped further to 191 from 1960 to 1976.
According to a 1966 poll, only 42% of the American population still supported the death penalty at that time. There was debate about whether people were arbitrarily sentenced to death.
1972: The Furman v. Georgia Case
In 1972, the case of Furman v. Georgia (408 U.S. 238) came before the U.S. Supreme Court. Furman argued that the death penalty was imposed arbitrarily and on a whim, and violated the 8th Amendment (Amendment to the U.S. Constitution), which grants every person protection from cruel and unusual punishment.
The chief justices ruled that a punishment is ‘cruel and unusual’ if it is not proportionate to the crime, if it is imposed arbitrarily, if it offends the public sense of justice, and if it is no more effective than another harsh punishment. The justices ultimately agreed with Furman that the death penalty was cruel and unusual and violated the 8th Amendment. On June 29, 1972, the Supreme Court invalidated 40 death penalty statutes, suspended capital punishment throughout the country, and commuted the death sentences of 629 prisoners to life imprisonment.
1976: Reinstatement of the Death Penalty
States revised their death penalty laws to eliminate arbitrariness in the imposition of a death sentence. Guidelines were established to allow a judge or jury to consider aggravating or mitigating factors. Further, two distinct phases of the trial were established – one in which the guilt or innocence of the defendant is decided, and a second in which the amount of the sentence is determined if the defendant is found guilty. Automatic appeals were also established, under which the verdict and sentence could be reconsidered on appeal.
In 1976, the death penalty was reinstated. Executions resumed on January 17, 1977. Gary Gilmore was killed by firing squad in Utah.
On December 2, 1982, Charles Brooks became the first prisoner to die by lethal injection. He was killed in Texas.