In colonial North America, use of the death penalty was strongly influenced by European practices. When European settlers came to the new world, they brought along their practice of capital punishment. But the public sentiments toward capital punishment, as well as the laws regarding its application, have swung from one of the spectrum to the other (more than once) throughout the history of the United States.
The following is a summary of the death penalty in the U.S.
Early History of Capital Punishment in the New World
In the territory now recognized as the United States, the first known execution was that of Captain George Kendall in the Jamestown colony of Virginia in 1608. Kendall was executed for being a spy for Spain. In 1612, Virginia governor Sir Thomas Dale enacted the Divine, Moral and Martial Laws, which provided the death penalty for even minor offenses such as stealing grapes, killing chickens, and trading with Indians.
Death penalty laws varied considerably from colony to colony. The Massachusetts Bay Colony held its first execution in 1630, although the Capital Laws of New England didn't go into effect until many years later. The New York Colony instituted the Duke's Laws of 1665. Under these laws, offenses such as striking one's mother or father or denying the "true God" were punishable by death.
Death Penalty in the U.S.: The Colonial Period
The abolitionist movement is rooted in the writings of European social theorists Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Bentham, and English Quakers John Bellers and John Howard. However, it was a 1767 essay ("On Crimes and Punishment," written by Cesare Beccaria) which principally influenced thinking about punishment throughout the world. Beccaria wrote that there was no justification for the state's taking of a life. The essay gave abolitionists an authoritative voice and renewed energy, one result of which was the abolition of the death penalty in Austria and Tuscany.
Scholars in the United States were also affected by Beccaria's work. The first known attempted reforms of the death penalty in the United States occurred when Thomas Jefferson introduced a bill to revise Virginia's capital punishment laws, recommending that the death penalty be used only in the case of murder and treason offenses. Jefferson's bill was defeated by one vote.
Other challenges to early capital punishment laws were based on the idea that the death penalty was not a true deterrent. Dr. Benjamin Rush, founder of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, believed in the brutalization effect and argued that having a death penalty actually increased criminal behavior. Benjamin Franklin and Philadelphia attorney general William Bradford supported Rush.
Bradford, who would later become the U. S. attorney general, led Pennsylvania to become the first state to consider degrees of murder based on culpability. In 1794, Pennsylvania repealed the death penalty for all offenses except premeditated murder.
Death Penalty in the U.S.: The Nineteenth Century
In the early to mid-nineteenth century United States, the abolitionist movement gained support in the northeast. In the early part of the century, many states reduced the number of capital crimes and built state penitentiaries. In 1834, Pennsylvania became the first state to move executions away from the public by carrying them out in correctional facilities. In 1846, Michigan was the first state to abolish the death penalty for all crimes except treason.
Later, Rhode Island and Wisconsin abolished the death penalty for all crimes. By the end of the century, the countries of Venezuela, Portugal, Netherlands, Costa Rica, Brazil, and Ecuador followed suit.
While some states began abolishing the death penalty, most held onto it. Some states even made more crimes punishable by death, especially those committed by slaves. In 1838, in an effort to make the death penalty more acceptable to the public, some states began passing laws against mandatory death sentencing, instead enacting discretionary death penalty statutes.
The 1838 enactment of discretionary death penalty statutes in Tennessee and later in Alabama were seen as a great reform. This introduction of sentencing discretion in the capital process was perceived as a victory for abolitionists because prior to the enactment of these statutes, all states mandated the death penalty for anyone convicted of a capital crime, regardless of circumstances. With the exception of a small number of rarely committed crimes in a few jurisdictions, all mandatory capital punishment laws were abolished by 1863.
During the Civil War, opposition to the death penalty diminished, as more attention was given to the anti-slavery movement. After the war, new developments in the means of executions emerged. In 1888, the electric chair was introduced in the state of New York. In 1890 William Kemmler became the first man executed by electrocution. Other states followed New York and used the electric chair as the primary method of execution.
Death Penalty in the U.S.: The Progressive Period
While some states eliminated the death penalty in the mid-nineteenth century, it was the first half of the twentieth century that marked the beginning of the Progressive Period of reform in the United States. From 1907 to 1917, six states completely outlawed the death penalty, and three limited it to the rarely committed crimes of treason and first-degree murder of a law enforcement official.
These reforms didn't last long. There was a frenzied atmosphere in the United States, as citizens began to panic about the threat of revolution in the wake of the Russian Revolution. In addition, the United States had recently entered World War I and there were intense class conflicts as socialists mounted the first serious challenge to capitalism. By 1920, these circumstances led five of the six abolitionist states to return to capital punishment.
In 1924, the use of cyanide gas was introduced in the state of Nevada as a more humane way of execution. Gee Jon was the first person executed by lethal gas. The state tried to pump cyanide gas into Jon's cell while he slept, but this proved impossible, and the gas chamber was constructed.
From the 1920s to the 1940s, there was a revival in the use of the death penalty, due, in part, to the writings of criminologists, who argued that the death penalty was a necessary social measure. In the United States, people were suffering through Prohibition and the Great Depression. There were more executions in the 1930s than in any other decade in U. S. history, an average of 167 per year.
In the 1950s, however, public sentiment began to turn against capital punishment. Many allied nations either abolished or limited the death penalty, and in the U. S. the number of executions dropped dramatically. Whereas there were 1,289 executions in the 1940s, there were 715 in the 1950s, and the number fell even further (to only 191) from 1960 to 1976.
In 1966, support for capital punishment reached an all-time low. A Gallup poll showed support for the death penalty at only 42 percent. This carried into the 1970s when a Supreme Court decision placed a moratorium on the death penalty in all states. However, this was reversed four years later in the Supreme Court case of Gregg v. Georgia which held that the death penalty "does not, under all circumstances, violate the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments."
The Death Penalty in the U.S. Today
Although the Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of the death penalty, there have been more recent efforts to restrict its use at the state and federal levels. For example, the Supreme Court in 2002 prohibited the death penalty for mentally challenged criminals and in 2008 ruled that it could not be used in cases where the victim didn't die. Many states have also enacted restrictions on the death penalty or at least slowed their pace of executions, with a handful abolishing it altogether in favor of life sentences.
Answer Your Questions About the Death Penalty by Talking to an Attorney
If you're involved in a criminal case where the death penalty is a possibility, you likely already have legal representation (if not, you certainly should). If you have questions about application the death penalty in the U.S. or any other related questions, you may want to consider contacting a seasoned criminal defense attorney who can answer your questions and give you personalized legal advice, should you need it.