- In which States there is the death penalty?
- Death penalty in the early colonial times
- first death sentences
- The peculiar history of death penalty in Massachusetts
- First execution of a woman in the USA
- The evolution during the Nineteenth century
- The death Penalty during the Twentieth Century
- The abolition of the death penalty in the US
- The reaffirmation of capital punishment
- Death penalty nowadays
The expression “death penalty” or “capital punishment” defines the legal execution of a person who has been convicted of a crime. Executions are carried out when what’s known as a “death-eligible” crime has been committed. The etymology of “capital” derives from the Latin word capitalis, meaning “of the head”, because it was a common procedure to punish criminals by beheading. However, this method has not been used in the United States. The current eligibly permitted ways to execute a prisoner in The USA are by electrocution, lethal injection, gas chamber, hanging and firing squad. You can find detailed information about these techniques in this article.
In which States there is the death penalty?
Due to distinctions in the legislative system which is subdivided into local, state, and federal juridical levels and arbitrations are made accordingly. Individual states can decide independently whether they want to implement capital punishment in their legislation. Death sentences are currently legal in 28 of the 50 American states.
The jurisdictions with capital punishment are:
- North Carolina
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
Death penalty in the early colonial times
In the American history death penalty has undergone constant changes. It has been perceived and applied with in variable measures accordingly to the moral trends of the time. In America capital punishment (as intended today) can be traced back to the early 1600s. First settlers travelling from Europe to overtake new territories, brought their practices along thus introducing the death sentence to the New World. With a ruthlessness contextual to those brutal times, colonists applied punishments in a brutal frequency that surpassed even the standards of their European counterparts. Capital punishment was enforced even to minor offenders for crimes as petty as pickpocketing. These were radical times with social and constitutional standards that would be unacceptable today.
first death sentences
The first recorded execution in American history took place in 1608 in the British North American colonies. Officials executed George Kendall of Virginia for allegedly plotting to spy the British on behalf of the Spanish government. Four years later, Sir Thomas Dale, the governor of Virginia, established the Divine, Moral and Martial Laws which remained in force until 1618. The “martial” referenced underlined the military role of law enforcement, while the terms “divine” and “moral” were attributes relating to the principles of crime and punishment that were starting to be defined.
As in England, death penalty was common practice in Virginia. It was implemented ordinarily for a range of crimes that went from stealing a loaf of bread or trading with Indians to murdering someone. The first legal death sentence carried by decree of the Divine, Moral and Martial Laws took place on the 1st of March 1622. A criminal named Daniel Frank in Jamestown was punished for stealing cattle belonging to a major landowner.
Regulatory attempts were also made by other colonies which followed Virginia’s lead. For instance, in the colony of New York Duke’s Laws determined that actions such as denying the existence of God and hitting one’s parents should be punished by death.
The peculiar history of death penalty in Massachusetts
In 1630, the first hanging for murder took place in the colony of Plymouth, Massachusetts. John Billington, who had come to the New World on the Mayflower, was executed for fatally shooting with a blunderbuss the fellow colonist John Newcomen. Upon counselling with his peers, Governor William Bradford concluded that punishment was to be sought by death, thus marking the first execution in Plymouth.
In the Colony of Massachusetts Bay, twelve crimes warranted the death penalty. These derived from laws transposed from the English Penal Code and they included: idolatry (worship of an idol or cult image, idea, or object), witchcraft, blasphemy (expressing disrespect for religious beliefs, practice of magical skills, abilities), rape, statutory rape (nonforcible sexual intercourse with a person who is under the statutory age of consent), kidnapping, perjury (swearing a false oath) in a trial involving a possible death sentence, rebellion, murder, assault in sudden anger, adultery, and buggery (sodomy).
Before 1660, in the state of Massachusetts there had already been fifteen executions. Four individuals were sentenced for “crime” of being Quakers. There was an absence of general agreement amongst colonies with regards to which crimes demanded the death sentence. Laws were made and applied using variable interpretations with biblical references. Written charters often defined crimes by quoting excerpts from the Old Testamen. A number of offences were added as necessity arose; these included arson, treason, and grand larceny. With an evolution of amendments, by 1780, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts only recognized seven capital crimes: murder, sodomy, burglary, buggery, arson, rape and treason.
First execution of a woman in the USA
The first recorded execution of a woman took place in 1632, 24 years after the first recorded male execution. June Champion in Virginia was the woman in question, records don’t specify the crime for which she was convicted but she was hanged in James City. Some historical sources state that she was executed for infanticide, it seems that she killed her child because he was born from an adulterous affair. Puritans considered infanticide to be the worst form of murder and the culprit was to be punished with death. In America nearly two-thirds of the women executed in the 17th and the early 18th century were convicted of child murder.
The following year, Margaret Hatch was also hanged for infanticide in Virginia by the same country officials. Like with June Champion, the historical records concerning Margaret Hatch’s case are vague and scattered which is why the reasons of her murder are not known.
The first comprehensive reforms concerning the death penalty occurred between 1776 and 1800. Thomas Jefferson was one of the pioneering contributors, he was amongst a handful of individuals that undertook the task of revising completely Virginia’s laws. He proposed that the death penalty should only be applied to traitors and murderers.
In 1789 the Bill of Rights adopted the first ten amendments and drafted them in the Constitution of the United States of America. The Eighth Amendment prohibited the federal government from imposing cruel and unusual punishments. The Fifth Amendment is the amendment that addressed criminal procedure in the United States Constitution. Both the Fifth and the Fourteenth Amendment include a due process clause stating that no individual shall “be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”.
The evolution during the Nineteenth century
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, both religious leaders and enlightened idealists strongly demanded the abolition of the death penalty. The years between 1833 and 1853 can be considered the ‘Great Reform Era’ for the history of punishment by death. At the time many countries had capital punishment, it was common practice practically everywhere, but in 1846, the state of Michigan made a precursory attempt to abolish the death penalty.
Wisconsin followed suit in 1853 and several other states also made a turn changing their legislation. Wisconsin in particular prohibited the death penalty after a ghastly execution, the victim suffered for more than five minutes while hanging from a rope and when he was finally pulled down it took fifteen more minutes before doctors could confirm his death. Advocating for the prohibition of the death penalty waned during the mid-nineteenth century because the public paid more attention to the anti-slavery movement, the Civil War, and Reconstruction.
In the late 19th century, New York made history instituting the electric chair as the innovative method to execute criminals. However, this gruesome practice was popularly perceived as even more barbaric than the previous procedures. This execution method, first came in 1881 in Buffalo, New York , throughout the 1880s it was perfectioned to achieve a supposedly more humane alternative to hanging. The inventor of the electric chair was a dentist named Alfred P. Southwick and the first victim to be electrocuted was William Kemmler, in 1890.
The death Penalty during the Twentieth Century
This era marked a new phase in America’s history of the death penalty. During this century there were issues concerning business monopolies and the destitution of immigrants. But most of the States stood in favour of abolishing the death penalty. Between 1900 and 1918 ten States abolished the death sentence: Minnesota, North Dakota, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Kansas, South Dakota, Missouri, Arizona, and Tennessee. Even in the States that did not abolish the death penalty a conscious opposition arouse stronger with the support of institutions and the press.
Many of these reforms were only temporary. Capital punishment soon reasserted consensus as a result of propaganda related to the Russian Revolution, World War I, and movements against capitalism. The Governor of Texas Allan Shivers went so far as fervently asserting how the death penalty should apply to supporters of the Communist Party. In fact, there were more executions during the 1930s than in any other period, there was no significant opposition and it was considered as a ‘necessary social measure’.
In the mid-20th century, eleven states had implemented death punishment by asphyxiation. Pumping poisonous gas into gas chambers was believed to be the more humane way to execute people. During the international discussions concerning these new methods of execution, most believed that gas was less painful for the prisoner and less visually disturbing for the public.
Following World War II – the war in which nearly three per cent of the planet’s population died – American state figures began to turn against executions. Popular view also shifted and many of America’s states allied in removing or at least limiting the death sentence.
The abolition of the death penalty in the US
After the mid-20th century and until the ruling of the Supreme Court of the United States in Furman v. Georgia in 1972, there was a decline in the number of death executions. Furman v. Georgia was a criminal case that invalidated all the death punishment methods in America.
During the Progressive Era scholars had tried to find arguments on how the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment’s principle which defends people’s rights against cruel and unusual punishments. And in Furman’s case, this point was specifically argued and the Supreme Court of the United States found the death penalty to be unconstitutional on the grounds that it violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition. Nine separate judicial opinions were expressed and with a majority of 5 to 4, the U.S. Supreme Court submitted that the way capital punishment laws were written was in violation of the Bill of Rights. Today William Henry Furman, having served his prison term, is free and is working in the state of Georgia.
Many thought that this case would bring the death penalty to an end. The State Supreme Courts of California and New Jersey, referring to the same case’s outcome also found capital punishment to be unconstitutional.
In the 20th century the Vietnam War (1955-1975) and the Civil Rights Movement (1955-1968) seriously impacted public view on many topics. Pressure was put on many States to abolish executions. Specifically, the Civil Rights Movement concomitantly with promoting justice for the African Americans also argued for putting an end to the death penalty. Between 1957 and 1969, Hawaii, Alaska, Delaware, Michigan, Oregon, Iowa, New York, West Virginia, Vermont, and New Mexico abolished the death penalty. In the 1960s few prosecutors asked for the death penalty, and between 1967 and 1972 there were no executions anywhere in the United States.
The reaffirmation of capital punishment
By 1975, there was a retreat in mindset and 200 criminals were condemned to the death penalty in thirty states. The supreme court reaffirmed the legality of capital punishment in 1976’s case Gregg v. Georgia and this was encouragement for other states to reinstate the death sentence.
Another form of execution was soon found, Oklahoma passed the first death by lethal injection law. This new practice involves injecting a deadly chemical intravenously in the body of the criminal. Lethal injection is considered less stressful than the electric chair to both the criminal and the witnesses. But truth is that this new invention is backed by economic reasons as much as by humanitarian values. Electric chairs involve expensive servicing costs and gas chamber are costly to build, lethal injection instead cost ten/fifteen dollars each.
Towards the end of the twentieth century and into the twenty first, many scholars began to acknowledge the effects of race difference on death punishment cases.
Death penalty nowadays
The 21st century marked a turning point in the history of the American death penalty. The capital punishment was used by only 5 states, namely: Alabama, Georgia, Missouri, Tennessee and Texas. In 2002 and 2005, respectively, the United States Supreme Court ruled first for the mentally impaired and then for those under the age of 18 that punishment by death should be considered unconstitutional. In 2014 it was held that states could not rule out mental impairment if the criminal possessed an IQ of equal or below 70. The Supreme Court also refused the imposition of the death penalty for child rape in 2008.
While international organizations and international law have restricted the implementation of the death penalty, its application has not yet been banned internationally. Nowadays, some of the strongest supporters in favour of the death penalty are in the USA. This is where the most heated debates on the matter still occur. With factions strongly opposing each other on whether death penalty constitutes an appropriate punishment. Some discussions go as far as to proposing new technologies to execute prisoners. Considering the vehemence with which some are in favour of the death penalty it appears challenging for all the states in America to abolish this practice.
In 2019 the Gallup poll revealed that for the first time since in 1985 (year in which the poll started asking), a majority of American citizens convened that life imprisonment is a better punishment than death penalty murderers. Last year (2020) was the first in U.S history during which federal executions exceeded state executions. In the summer of the same year mass protests against police brutality and racist violence took place and three men were executed.
According to the Biden administration Government it now working to abolish the power of federal execution. It has been stated that: “By working to end the federal death penalty and prohibiting federal executions, President-elect Biden can banish the racist, costly, and failed federal death penalty to the dustbin of history where it belongs.”
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