Century B.C. - first
established death penalty laws.
Century A.D. - William the
will not allow persons to be hanged except in cases of murder.
1608 - Captain George Kendall becomes
recorded execution in the new colonies.
1632 - Jane Champion
becomes the first woman executed in the new colonies.
1767 - Cesare Beccaria's essay, On Crimes
and Punishment, theorizes that there is no justification for the state
to take a life.
1700s - United States
1800s - Many states reduce
number of capital crimes and build state penitentiaries.
1823-1837 - Over 100 of the 222 crimes
by death in Britain are eliminated.
1834 - Pennsylvania becomes the first
state to move
executions into correctional facilities.
1838 - Discretionary death penalty
1846 - Michigan becomes the first state
the death penalty for all crimes except treason.
1890- William Kemmler becomes first
Early 1900s - Beginning
of the "Progressive Period" of reform in the United States.
1907-1917 - Nine states abolish the death
for all crimes or strictly limit it.
1920s - 1940s - American abolition movement loses
1924 - The use of cyanide gas introduced
as an execution
1930s - Executions reach the highest
levels in American
history - average 167 per year.
The United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal
Human Rights proclaiming a "right to life."
1950-1980 - De facto
abolition becomes the norm in western Europe.
1958 - Trop v. Dulles. Eighth
meaning contained an "evolving standard of decency that marked the
of a maturing society."
1966 - Support of capital punishment
low. A Gallup poll shows support of the death penalty at only 42%.
1968 - Witherspoon
potential jurors solely because they express opposition to the death
1970 - Crampton v. Ohio and McGautha
v. California. The Supreme Court approves of unfettered jury
and non-bifurcated trials.
1972 - Furman v.
Supreme Court effectively voids 40 death penalty statutes and suspends
the death penalty.
1976 - Gregg v. Georgia. Guided
statutes approved. Death penalty reinstated
January 17, 1977
- Ten-year moratorium
ends with the execution of Gary Gilmore by firing squad in Utah.
1977 - Oklahoma becomes the first state
lethal injection as a means of execution.
v. Georgia. Held death penalty is an unconstitutional punishment
rape of an adult woman when the victim is not killed.
December 7, 1982 - Charles Brooks becomes the
first person executed by lethal injection.
1984 - Velma Barfield
becomes the first woman executed since reinstatement of the death
Ford v. Wainwright. Execution of insane persons banned.
1986 - Batson v. Kentucky.
Prosecutor who strikes a disproportionate number of citizens of the
race in selecting a jury is required to rebut the inference of
by showing neutral reasons for his or her strikes.
1987 - McCleskey v.
Kemp. Racial disparities not recognized as a constitutional
of "equal protection of the law" unless intentional racial
against the defendant can be shown.
1988 - Thompson
v. Oklahoma. Executions of offenders age fifteen and younger at the
time of their crimes is unconstitutional.
1989 - Stanford
v. Kentucky, and Wilkins v. Missouri. Eighth Amendment does
not prohibit the death penalty for crimes committed at age sixteen or
Penry v. Lynaugh. Executing persons with mental
not a violation of the Eighth Amendment.
1993 - Herrera
v. Collins. In the absence of other constitutional grounds, new
of innocence is no reason for federal court to order a new trial.
1994 - President Clinton
signs the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act expanding the
1996 - President Clinton
signs the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act restricting
in federal courts.
1998 - Karla Faye Tucker
and Judi Buenoano executed.
November 1998 - Northwestern
University holds the first-ever National Conference on Wrongful
and the Death Penalty. The Conference brings together 30 inmates who
freed from death row because of innocence.
January 1999 - Pope John
Paul II visits St. Louis, Missouri, and calls for an end to the death
April 1999 -
U.N. Human Rights Commission Resolution Supporting
June 1999 - Russian
President, Boris Yeltsin, signs a decree commuting the death sentences
of all of the convicts on Russia's death row.
2000 - Illinois Governor George Ryan declares a
Moratorium on executions and appoints a blue-ribbon Commission on
Capital Punishment to study the issue.
- Ring v. Arizona. A death sentence where the
necessary aggravating factors are determined by a judge violates a
defendant's constitutional right to a trial by jury.
- Atkins v. Virginia. the execution of mentally
retarded defendants violates the Eighth Amendment's ban on crual and
2003 - Gov. George Ryan grants clemency to all of the
remaining 167 death row inmates in Illinois because of the flawed
process that led to these sentences.
2004 - New York's death penalty law declared unconstitutional by
the state's high court.
March 2005 - In Roper V. Simmons, the United
States Supreme Court
ruled that the death penalty for those who had committed their crimes
under 18 years of age was cruel and unusual punishment.
to the Death Penalty
The first established death penalty laws
as far back as the Eighteenth Century B.C. in the Code of King
of Babylon, which codified the death penalty for 25 different crimes.
death penalty was also part of the Fourteenth Century B.C.'s Hittite
in the Seventh Century B.C.'s Draconian Code of Athens, which made
the only punishment for all crimes; and in the Fifth Century B.C.'s
Law of the Twelve Tablets. Death sentences were carried out by such
as crucifixion, drowning, beating to death, burning alive, and
In the Tenth
hanging became the usual method of execution in Britain. In the
century, William the Conqueror would not allow persons to be hanged or
otherwise executed for any crime, except in times of war. This trend
not last, for in the Sixteenth Century, under the reign of Henry VIII,
as many as 72,000 people are estimated to have been executed. Some
methods of execution at that time were boiling, burning at the stake,
beheading, and drawing and quartering. Executions were carried out for
such capital offenses as marrying a Jew, not confessing to a crime, and
The number of capital crimes in Britain
to rise throughout the next two centuries. By the 1700s, 222 crimes
punishable by death in Britain, including stealing, cutting down a
and robbing a rabbit warren. Because of the severity of the death
many juries would not convict defendants if the offense was not
This lead to reforms of Britain's death penalty. From 1823 to 1837, the
death penalty was eliminated for over 100 of the 222 crimes punishable
by death. (Randa, 1997)
Death Penalty in America
Britain influenced America's use of the
penalty more than any other country. When European settlers came to the
new world, they brought the practice of capital punishment. The
first recorded execution in the new colonies was that of Captain George
Kendall in the Jamestown colony of Virginia in 1608. Kendall was
for being a spy for Spain. In 1612, Virginia Governor Sir Thomas Dale
the Divine, Moral and Martial Laws, which provided the death penalty
even minor offenses such as stealing grapes, killing chickens, and
Laws regarding the death penalty varied
to colony. The Massachusetts Bay Colony held its first execution in
even though the Capital Laws of New England did not go into effect
years later. The New York Colony instituted the Duke's Laws of 1665.
these laws, offenses such as striking one's mother or father, or
the "true God," were punishable by death. (Randa, 1997)
The abolitionist movement finds its
roots in the
writings of European theorists Montesquieu, Voltaire and Bentham, and
Quakers John Bellers and John Howard. However, it was Cesare Beccaria's
1767 essay, On Crimes and Punishment, that had an especially
impact throughout the world. In the essay, Beccaria theorized that
was no justification for the state's taking of a life. The essay gave
an authoritative voice and renewed energy, one result of which was the
abolition of the death penalty in Austria and Tuscany. ( Schabas 1997)
American intellectuals as well were
by Beccaria. The first attempted reforms of the death penalty in the
occurred when Thomas Jefferson introduced a bill to revise
death penalty laws. The bill proposed that capital punishment be used
for the crimes of murder and treason. It was defeated by only one vote.
Also influenced was Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the
Independence and founder of the Pennsylvania Prison Society. Rush
the belief that the death penalty serves as a deterrent.
In fact, Rush was an early believer in the "brutalization effect." He
that having a death penalty actually increased criminal conduct. Rush
the support of Benjamin Franklin and Philadelphia Attorney General
Bradford. Bradford, who would later become the U.S. Attorney General,
Pennsylvania to become the first state to consider degrees of murder
on culpability. In 1794, Pennsylvania repealed the death penalty for
offenses except first degree murder. (Bohm, 1999; Randa, 1997; and
In the early to mid-Nineteenth Century, the abolitionist
momentum in the northeast. In the early part of the century, many
reduced the number of their capital crimes and built state
1834, Pennsylvania became the first state to move executions away from
the public eye and carrying them out in correctional facilities.
In 1846, Michigan became the first state to
the death penalty for all crimes except treason. Later, Rhode Island
Wisconsin abolished the death penalty for all crimes. By the end of the
century, the world would see the countries of Venezuela, Portugal,
Costa Rica, Brazil and Ecuador follow suit. (Bohm, 1999 and Schabas,
Although some U.S. states began abolishing the death penalty,
held onto capital punishment. Some states made more crimes capital
especially for offenses committed by slaves. In 1838, in an effort to
the death penalty more palatable to the public, some states began
laws against mandatory death sentencing instead enacting discretionary
death penalty statutes. The 1838 enactment of
death penalty statutes in Tennessee, and later in Alabama, were seen as
a great reform. This introduction of sentencing discretion in the
process was perceived as a victory for abolitionists because prior to
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
all mandatory capital punishment laws had been abolished by 1963.
War, opposition to the death penalty waned, as more attention was given
to the anti-slavery movement. After the war, new developments in the
of executions emerged. The electric chair was introduced at the end of
the century. New York built the first electric
in 1888, and in 1890 executed William Kemmler. Soon, other states
this execution method.
Although some states abolished the death penalty in the
Century, it was actually the first half of the Twentieth Century that
the beginning of the "Progressive Period" of reform in the United
1907 to 1917, six states completely outlawed the death penalty and
limited it to the rarely committed crimes of treason and first degree
of a law enforcement official. However, this reform was short-lived.
was a frenzied atmosphere in the U.S., as citizens began to panic about
the threat of revolution in the wake of the Russian Revolution. In
the U.S. had just entered World War I and there were intense class
as socialists mounted the first serious challenge to capitalism. As a
five of the six abolitionist states reinstated their death penalty by
1997 and Bohm, 1999)
In 1924, the use of cyanide gas was
Nevada sought a more humane way of executing its inmates. Gee Jon was
first person executed by lethal gas. The state tried to pump cyanide
into Jon's cell while he slept, but this proved impossible, and the gas
chamber was constructed. (Bohm, 1999)
From the 1920s to the 1940s, there was a
in the use of the death penalty. This was due, in part, to the writings
of criminologists, who argued that the death penalty was a necessary
measure. In the United States, Americans were suffering through
and the Great Depression. There were more
in the 1930s than in any other decade in American history, an average
167 per year. (Bohm, 1999 and Schabas, 1997)
In the 1950s, public sentiment began to
from capital punishment. Many allied nations either abolished or
the death penalty, and in the U.S., the number of executions dropped
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
In 1966, support for capital punishment reached an all-time low. A
poll showed support for the death penalty at only 42%. (Bohm, 1999 and
of the Death Penalty in America
the Death Penalty
The 1960s brought challenges to the
legality of the death penalty. Before then, the Fifth, Eighth, and
Amendments were interpreted as permitting the death penalty. However,
the early 1960s, it was suggested that the death penalty was a "cruel
unusual" punishment, and therefore unconstitutional under the Eighth
In 1958, the Supreme Court had decided in
Trop v. Dulles (356 U.S. 86), that
Eighth Amendment contained an "evolving standard of decency that marked
the progress of a maturing society." Although Trop was not a
penalty case, abolitionists applied the Court's logic to executions and
maintained that the United States had, in fact, progressed to a point
its "standard of decency" should no longer tolerate the death penalty.
In the late 1960s, the Supreme Court
tuning" the way the death penalty was administered. To this effect, the
Court heard two cases in 1968 dealing with the discretion given to the
prosecutor and the jury in capital cases. The first case was U.S.
Jackson (390 U.S. 570), where the Supreme Court heard arguments
a provision of the federal kidnapping statute requiring that the death
penalty be imposed only upon recommendation of a jury. The Court held
this practice was unconstitutional because it encouraged defendants to
waive their right to a jury trial to ensure they would not receive a
was Witherspoon v. Illinois (391 U.S. 510). In this case, the
Court held that a potential juror's mere reservations about the death
were insufficient grounds to prevent that person from serving on the
in a death penalty case. Jurors could be disqualified only if
could show that the juror's attitude toward capital punishment would
him or her from making an impartial decision about the punishment.
In 1971, the
again addressed the problems associated with the role of jurors and
discretion in capital cases. The Court decided Crampton v. Ohio
and McGautha v. California (consolidated under 402 U.S. 183).
defendants argued it was a violation of their Fourteenth Amendment
to due process for jurors to have unrestricted discretion in deciding
the defendants should live or die, and such discretion resulted in
and capricious sentencing. Crampton also argued that it was
to have his guilt and sentence determined in one set of deliberations,
as the jurors in his case were instructed that a first-degree murder
would result in a death sentence. The Court, however, rejected these
thereby approving of unfettered jury discretion and a single proceeding
to determine guilt and sentence. The Court stated that guiding capital
sentencing discretion was "beyond present human ability."
the Death Penalty
The issue of arbitrariness of the death
was again be brought before the Supreme Court in 1972 in Furman v.
v. Georgia, and Branch v. Texas (known collectively as the
case Furman v. Georgia (408 U.S. 238)). Furman, like McGautha,
that capital cases resulted in arbitrary and capricious sentencing.
however, was a challenge brought under the Eighth Amendment, unlike
which was a Fourteenth Amendment due process claim. With the Furman
the Supreme Court set the standard that a punishment would be "cruel
unusual" if it was too severe for the crime, if it was arbitrary, if it
offended society's sense of justice, or it if was not more effective
a less severe penalty.
In 9 separate opinions, and by a vote of
4, the Court held that Georgia's death penalty statute, which gave the
jury complete sentencing discretion, could result in arbitrary
The Court held that the scheme of punishment under the statute was
"cruel and unusual" and violated the Eighth Amendment. Thus, on June
1972, the Supreme Court effectively voided 40 death penalty statutes,
commuting the sentences of 629 death row inmates around the country and
suspending the death penalty because existing statutes were no longer
the Death Penalty
Although the separate opinions by
and Marshall stated that the death penalty itself was unconstitutional,
the overall holding in Furman was that the specific death
statutes were unconstitutional. With that holding, the Court
opened the door to states to rewrite their death penalty statutes to
the problems cited in Furman. Advocates of capital punishment
proposing new statutes that they believed would end arbitrariness in
sentencing. The states were led by Florida, which rewrote its death
statute only five months after Furman. Shortly after, 34 other
proceeded to enact new death penalty statutes. To address the
of unguided jury discretion, some states removed all of that discretion
by mandating capital punishment for those convicted of capital crimes.
However, this practice was held unconstitutional by the Supreme Court
v. North Carolina (428 U.S. 280 (1976)).
Other states sought
that discretion by providing sentencing guidelines for the judge and
when deciding whether to impose death. The guidelines allowed for the
of aggravating and mitigating factors in determining sentencing. These
guided discretion statutes were approved in 1976 by the Supreme Court
v. Georgia (428 U.S. 153), Jurek v. Texas (428 U.S. 262),
v. Florida (428 U.S. 242), collectively referred to as the Gregg
This landmark decision held that the new death penalty statutes in
Georgia, and Texas were constitutional, thus reinstating the death
in those states. The Court also held that the death penalty itself was
constitutional under the Eighth Amendment.
In addition to sentencing guidelines,
procedural reforms were approved by the Court in Gregg. The
was bifurcated trials, in which there are separate deliberations for
guilt and penalty phases of the trial. Only after the jury has
that the defendant is guilty of capital murder does it decide in a
trial whether the defendant should be sentenced to death or given a
sentence of prison time. Another reform was the practice of automatic
review of convictions and sentence. The final procedural reform from Gregg
proportionality review, a practice that helps the state to identify and
eliminate sentencing disparities. Through this process, the state
court can compare the sentence in the case being reviewed with other
within the state, to see if it is disproportionate.
Because these reforms were accepted by
Court, some states wishing to reinstate the death penalty included them
in their new death penalty statutes. The Court, however, did not
that each of the reforms be present in the new statutes. Therefore,
of the resulting new statutes include variations on the procedural
found in Gregg.
on executions that had begun with the Jackson and Witherspoon
ended on January 17, 1977, with the execution of Gary Gilmore by firing
squad in Utah. Gilmore did not challenge his death sentence. That same
year, Oklahoma became the first state to adopt lethal injection as a
of execution, though it would be five more years until Charles Brooks
the first person executed by lethal injection in Texas on December 7,
in Part II
Amnesty International, "List
of Abolitionist and Retentionist Countries," Report ACT 50/01/99,
D. Baker: "A Descriptive Profile and Socio-Historical Analysis
Executions in the United States: 1632-1997"; 10(3) Women and Criminal
R. Bohm, "Deathquest: An Introduction to the Theory and
Capital Punishment in the United States," Anderson Publishing, 1999.
"The Death Penalty in America: Current Controversies," H.
Oxford University Press, 1997.
K. O'Shea, "Women and the Death Penalty in the United States,
W. Schabas "The Abolition of the Death Penalty in
Cambridge University Press, second edition, 1997.
"Society's Final Solution: A History and Discussion of the
L. Randa, editor, University Press of America, 1997.
V. Streib, "Death
Penalty For Female Offenders January 1973 to December 2002,"
Ohio Northern University, 2003.
Sources for additional information about
Law Review & Journal