History of Death Penalty Laws

Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors.

The death penalty, or capital punishment, is practiced in just a handful of countries, including the United States, Saudi Arabia, China, Iran, and Egypt. Within the U.S., some states have banned or limited its use. And while it remains controversial, particularly within the context of access to quality defense counsel, the death penalty used to be much more widespread than it is today. The history of death penalty laws is long, stretching back a few thousand years.

The following is a brief history of death penalty laws, from ancient Babylon through the 21st century.

From the Code of Hammurabi to Roman Law

The early history of death penalty laws dates back to the 18th century B.C. and can be found in the Code of King Hammurabi of Babylon. The Hammurabi Code, which was engraved on stone tablets for members of the public to see, prescribed the death penalty for over 20 different offenses. Depending on your social status, you could be executed for theft, perjury, and other crimes that today are punished much more lightly in most countries. The Code also famously prescribed that "If a man destroy the eye of another man, they shall destroy his eye."

The death penalty was also part of the Hittite Code in the 14th century B.C., but only marginally. The most serious offenses typically were punished through enslavement, although crimes of a sexual nature often were punishable by death.

The Draconian Code of Athens, in 7th century B.C., made death the lone punishment for all crimes (hence the use of the term "draconian" to describe particularly harsh penalties). It may have been a myth, but legend has it that the Draconian Code was written in blood instead of ink.

In the 5th century B.C., the Roman Law of the Twelve Tables 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).

Death Penalty Laws in Great Britain

In Britain, hanging became the usual method of execution in the 10th century A.D. In the 11th 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 didn't last long. As many as 72,000 people were executed in the 16th 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 200 crimes were punishable by death in Britain, including theft, 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 weren't serious. Such practices led to early reform of Britain's death penalty laws. From 1823 to 1837, the death sentence was eliminated for over half of the crimes previously punishable by death.

History of Death Penalty Laws: Early United States

The early history of death penalty laws in the United States begins during colonial times, where criminal punishments varied quite a bit. The first known execution in the "New World" was in the Jamestown colony in present-day Virginia in the early 17th century. Offenses such as stealing grapes, trading with Native Americans, or striking one's mother or father were punishable by death in some colonies.

Pennsylvania ended the death penalty for all offenses but first degree murder in 1794, while Michigan abolished capital punishment for all crimes but treason in 1846. However, most states maintained the death penalty until public support sharply declined in the 1950s.

History of Death Penalty Laws: Modern United States

The U.S. Supreme Court banned the death penalty nationwide in 1972, ruling that it was arbitrary and discriminatory as applied at the time. But just four years later, the Court reversed this decision, thereby allowing states to reinstate capital punishment as long as they corrected the problems cited by the Court in the earlier decision. This led to some reforms, including automatic appeals of death sentences and efforts to reduce sentencing disparities.

But in the 21st century, a growing number of states began to implement moratoriums or statutory bans on the death penalty, including New York, Maryland, and Illinois. Furthermore, exoneration of death row inmates through DNA evidence has continued to shift public opinion away from support of the death penalty.

Get Professional Legal Help With Your Criminal Case

While the history of death penalty laws has its share of twists and turns in history, the value of a good attorney is timeless. Whether you're facing a possible prison sentence, loss of your professional license, or other potential penalties, it's probably in your best interests to seek professional help. Reach out to a local criminal defense attorney today and get some peace of mind.

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