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History of Death Penalty Laws

The first recognized death penalty laws date back to eighteenth century B.C. and can be found in the Code of King Hammaurabi of Babylon. The Hammurabi Code prescribed the death penalty for over twenty different offenses. The death penalty was also part of the Hittite Code in the fourteenth century B.C. The Draconian Code of Athens, in seventh century B.C., made death the lone punishment for all crimes. In the fifth century B.C., the Roman Law of the Twelve Tablets also contained the death penalty. Death sentences were carried out by such means as beheading, boiling in oil, burying alive, burning, crucifixion, disembowelment, drowning, flaying alive, hanging, impalement, stoning, strangling, being thrown to wild animals, and quartering (being torn apart).

In Britain, hanging became the usual method of execution in the tenth century A.D. In the eleventh century, William the Conqueror would not allow persons to be hanged or otherwise executed for any crime, except in times of war. However, this trend did not last long. As many as 72,000 people were executed in the sixteenth century during the reign of Henry VIII. Common execution methods used during this time included boiling, burning at the stake, hanging, beheading, and drawing and quartering. Various capital offenses included marrying a Jew, not confessing to a crime, and treason.

The number of capital crimes in Britain increased throughout the next two centuries. By the 1700s, over two hundred crimes were punishable by death in Britain, including stealing, cutting down a tree, and robbing a rabbit warren. However, due to the severity of the death penalty, many juries would not convict defendants if offenses were not serious. Such practices led to early reform of Britain's death penalty. From 1823 to 1837, the death sentence was eliminated for over half of the crimes previously punishable by death.

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