"The Code of Hammurabi(39 KB) , a legal document from ancient Babylonia (in modern-day Iraq), contained the first known death penalty laws. Under the code, written in the 1700s B.C., twenty-five crimes were punishable by death. These crimes included adultery (cheating on a wife or husband) and helping slaves escape. Murder was not one of the twenty-five crimes."
First Recorded Execution in the British American Colonies Was for Treason
"In fourteenth-century England, one could be executed for a crime as minor as disturbing the peace. And three centuries later, when the first colonists came to the land now known as the United States, they brought the British penal system across the ocean with them. A colonist in Virginia could be executed for crimes as trivial as stealing grapes, killing chickens, or trading with the Indians.
But the first documented execution in the new colonies was for a far more serious offense. In the Jamestown colony of Virginia in 1608, Captain George Kendall was hanged for the capital offense of treason. Among other serious capital crimes in colonial times were murder, rape, heresy - and witchcraft."
Pennsylvania Limits Crimes Punishable by Death to Treason and Murder
Frame of the Government of Pennsylvania, 1682. Source: www.loc.gov (accessed Jan. 6, 2010)
Pennsylvania founder William Penn convened his first General Assembly at Chester, PA, on Dec. 4, 1682. Following a debate on Pennsylvania's Frame of Government, the conference produced The Great Law or Body of Laws, which consisted of 61 chapters dictating the governance of Pennsylvania. It included the original Quaker criminal code which limited crimes punishable by death to premeditated murder and treason. Penn replaced the death penalty and bodily punishments with imprisonment in a House of Correction. This Quaker code was a radical departure from the practices of other societies around the world.
Italian Jurist Presents a Critique of the Death Penalty That Influences Abolitionists
Portrait of Cesare Beccaria.
(accessed Jan. 9, 2010)
"The first prominent European to call for an end to the death penalty, Beccaria is considered the founder of the modern abolition movement... In 1764, Beccaria published his famous Essays on Crimes and Punishments. It was the first major study of the criminal justice system as it operated in eighteenth-century Europe, as well as the first call for the abolition of capital punishment. It remains the most influential attack on the death penalty ever published...
It was Beccaria, though, who focused the attention of philosophers and political leaders on the issue. In addition to its effects in Europe, the Essay also had a significant effect on the thinking of abolitionists in America, including Dr. Benjamin Rush."
Death Penalty Used in All 13 US Colonies at Outbreak of American Revolution
By the start of the American Revolution, the death penalty was used in all 13 colonies. Rhode Island was the only colony that did not have at least 10 crimes punishable by death. The colonies had "roughly comparable death statutes which covered arson, piracy, treason, murder, sodomy, burglary, robbery, rape, horse-stealing, slave rebellion, and often counterfeiting. Hanging was the usual sentence. Rhode Island was probably the only colony which decreased the number of capital crimes in the late 1700's."
Founding Fathers Allow for Death Penalty When Writing Constitution
"To most constitutional lawyers there seems little doubt that the Founding Fathers intended to allow for the death penalty in drawing up the US Constitution of 1787. Not only did certain provisions of the Constitution - such as the Fifth Amendment - expressly allow for the taking of life, but others - such as the Eighth Amendment - were deliberately phrased in ambigious ways that suggested even if certain forms of punishment could be banned (such as crucifixions or beheadings) the basic principle of government executions remained permissible if individual states and the federal government wished to legislate for these."
At least one signer of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Rush, opposed the death penalty. He is often cited as the political forebearer of the abolitionist movement.
Joshua Marquis, JD "Truth and Consequences: The Penalty of Death," Debating the Death Penalty: Should America Have Capital Punishment?, 2004
Apr. 30, 1790
First US Congress Establishes Federal Death Penalty
"The First Congress adopted several other bills relating to the federal judiciary or its functions. Except for the bill providing salaries, these bills originated in the Senate. Most important was the Punishment of Crimes Act, the first listing of federal crimes and their punishment. In addition to treason and counterfeiting of federal records, the crimes included murder, disfigurement, and robbery committed in federal jurisdictions or on the high seas. The fourth paragraph of the act authorized judges to sentence convicted murderers to surgical dissection after execution. The fifth paragraph provided fines and imprisonment for anyone attempting to rescue a body of an individual sentenced to dissection."
First Person Executed Under US Federal Death Penalty
"The first federal execution was on June 25, 1790, when U.S. Marshall Henry Dearborn coordinated the hanging of Thomas Bird in Massachusetts. Dearborn spent five dollars and fifty cents for the construction of a gallows and a coffin."
PA Attorney General's Writings Introduce Concept of Varying Degrees of Murder and Contributes to Softening of Death Penalty Laws in PA and Other States
Portrait of William Bradford, 1872. Source: www.justice.gov (accessed Jan. 7, 2010)
"One of the first American documents in the discussion of the death penalty was An Inquiry How Far the Punishment of Death is Necessary in Pennsylvania, published in 1793 by William Bradford, Pennsylvania's attorney-general. Although Bradford favored capital punishment, he concluded that the death penalty made it harder for the state to convict the guilty in some cases because juries did not want to sentence people to death. This feeling was reflected in a wave of new laws throughout the 1790s that curbed capital punishment, abolishing it for certain classes of crime. Five states, for example, limited capital punishment to cases of murder."
Public Executions Are Attacked as Cruel and States Switch to Private Hangings
Illustration of a public execution. Source: www.gettyimages.com (accessed Apr. 23, 2010)
Starting around 1833, "public executions were attacked as cruel. Sometimes tens of thousands of eager viewers would show up to view hangings; local merchants would sell souvenirs and alcohol. Fighting and pushing would often break out as people jockeyed for the best view of the hanging or the corpse! Onlookers often cursed the widow or the victim and would try to tear down the scaffold or the rope for keepsakes. Violence and drunkenness often ruled towns far into the night after 'justice had been served.'
Many states enacted laws providing private hangings. Rhode Island (1833), Pennsylvania (1834), New York (1835), Massachusetts (1835), and New Jersey (1835) all abolished public hangings. By 1849, fifteen states were holding private hangings. This move was opposed by many death penalty abolitionists who thought public executions would eventually cause people to cry out against execution itself. For example, in 1835, Maine enacted what was in effect a moratorium on capital punishment after over ten thousand people who watched a hanging had to be restrained by police after they became unruly and began fighting. All felons sentenced to death would have to remain in prison at hard labor and could not be executed until one year had elapsed and then only on the governor's order. No governor ordered an execution under the 'Maine Law' for twenty-seven years."
Rev. George Barrel Cheever and Abolitionist John O'Sullivan Hold Debates on Capital Punishment in New York
"Scores of legislative reports, newspaper articles, and essay on capital punishment flooded the reading public in the 1840s, but few of those works differed substantially from O'Sullivan's report and Cheever's book. When the Broadway Tabernacle in New York decided to sponsor a series of public debates, no question was as controversial as capital punishment and no two opponents as well known as O'Sullivan and Cheever...
For three evenings, January 27, February 3, and February 17, 1843, O'Sullivan and Cheever debated the question 'Ought Capital Punishment to Be Abolished?'...
The debate between O'Sullivan and Cheever also demonstrated the shift from an emphasis on reforming criminals to a preoccupation with the deterrent effect of punishment. Opponents of capital punishment argued that life in prison served as a powerful enough deterrent; defenders of the death penalty insisted that imprisonment could never deter as effectively as the threat of death."
Louis P. Masur, PhDRites of Execution: Capital Punishment and the Transformation of American Culture, 1776-1865, 1991
First National Death Penalty Abolition Society Is Formed
The first national death penalty abolition society, the American Society for the Abolition of Capital Punishment, is founded.
US Department of State "The Evolution of the Death Penalty in the United States," Infousa.state.gov(accessed Dec. 15, 2009)
Michigan Becomes the First US State to Abolish Capital Punishment (Except for Treason)
"In 1846, the state of Michigan abolished the death penalty for all crimes, except treason, and replaced the death penalty with life imprisonment. The law took effect the next year, making Michigan, for all intents and purposes, the first English-speaking jurisdiction in the world to abolish capital punishment."
14th Amendment Passes and Is Later Used to Challenge the Death Penalty
The Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution is passed after the Civil War. The amendment extends the Fifth Amendment's protections to the states. The Fourteenth Amendment states: "nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." The Fourteenth Amendment was cited in the June 29, 1972 Supreme Court case Furman v. Georgia which ruled the death penalty unconstitutional as administered. The Fourteenth Amendment was also cited in the Mar. 1, 2005 Supreme Court case Roper v. Simmons which ruled the death penalty unconstitutional for offenders under the age of 18.
William W. Van Alstyne, JD "The Fourteenth Amendment, the 'Right' to Vote, and the Understanding of the Thirty-Ninth Congress," The Supreme Court Review, 1965
Thomas Edison Demonstrates Power of Electricity by Electrocuting Animals
Topsy the Elephant being electrocuted by Thomas Edison, 1903. Source: www.wired.com (accessed Apr. 23, 2010)
"In the 1880s, inventor Thomas Edison started building electrical lighting systems in U.S. cities. Edison's company demonstrated the power of electricity by electrocuting animals (killing them with electricity). These demonstrations led some people to reason that electrocution was a quick and painless form of execution." In 1887, Edison conducted many of these demonstrations in West Orange, NJ where he electrocuted numerous dogs and cats.
[Warning: graphic and potentially emotionally jarring material follows]. A Jan. 4, 1903 video of Thomas Edison electrocuting Topsy the Elephant can be seen here.
New York State Performs the First Execution by Electrocution with the Assistance of Thomas Edison's Engineers
Artist's rendering of William Kemmler's execution. Source: www.ccadp.org (accessed Jan. 7, 2010)
"On August 6, 1890, New York State used an 'electric chair' to carry out the first execution by electrocution. The condemned was murderer William Kemmler. As it turned out, the process was hardly quick or painless. It took two surges of electricity, one of them lasting more than one minute, to kill Kemmler. The electricity burned Kemmler to death. Despite the gruesome procedure, people still thought electrocution was more humane and efficient than previous methods. With some refinements, it soon became the preferred method of execution in the United States."
Nine States Abolish Capital Punishment during Second Great Reform Era
"In 1897, U.S. Congress passed a bill reducing the number of federal death crimes. In 1907, Kansas took the 'Maine Law' a step further and abolished all death penalties. Between 1911 and 1917, eight more states abolished capital punishment (Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Oregon, Arizona, Missouri and Tennessee - the latter in all cases but rape). Votes in other states came close to ending the death penalty."
Michael H. Reggio "History of the Death Penalty," Society's Final Solution: A History and Discussion of the Death Penalty, Ed. Laura Randa, MBA, 1997
May 2, 1910
Weems v. United States Establish Precedents on "Cruel and Unusual Punishment"
US Supreme Court Room where the Court sat from 1860-1935. Source: www.supremecourt.gov, c. 1900
"In Weems v. United States, however, the Court did make a ruling that would significantly affect the debate on the death penalty. Weems concerned a defendant who had been sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor, a heavy fine, and a number of other penalties for the relatively minor crime of falsifying official records. The Court overturned the sentence, ruling that the penalty was too harsh considering the nature of the offense. Ultimately, in the Weems decision, the Court set three important precedents concerning sentencing:
1. Cruel and unusual punishment is defined by the changing norms and standards of society and therefore is not based on historical interpretations.
2. Courts may decide whether a punishment is unnecessarily cruel with regard to physical pain.
3. Courts may decide whether a punishment is unnecessarily cruel with regard to psychological pain."
First US Execution by Gas Chamber Carried Out in Nevada
Interior of a gas death house in Nevada in 1926. Source: Bettman/CORBIS
"The first execution by lethal gas in American history [was] carried out in Carson City, Nevada on Feb. 8, 1924. The executed man was [Gee Jon], a member of a Chinese gang who was convicted of murdering a rival gang member. Lethal gas was adopted by Nevada in 1921 as a more humane method of carrying out its death sentences, as opposed to the traditional techniques of execution by hanging, firing squad, or electrocution."
Lindbergh Act Makes Kidnapping a Federal Capital Offense
"The baby son of Charles A. Lindbergh is kidnapped from his home in Hopewell, New Jersey. The body of the infant is found in the nearby woods two months later. The incident leads Congress to pass a federal kidnapping statute, popularly known as the Lindbergh Act, that makes the crime a capital offense. Similar 'Lindbergh laws' are enacted in more than 20 states by the end of the decade."
Rainey Bethea in 1936, the last prisoner to be publicly executed. Source: Associated Press
At 5:45 a.m. on Aug. 14, 1936, Rainey Bethea became the last person to be publicly executed in the US. Bethea was hanged for raping and murdering a 70-year-old woman in Owensboro, Kentucky. The execution garnered significant media and public attention because it was the first hanging in the US to be conducted by a woman. At least 20,000 people witnessed Bethea's hanging, which reporters called the "carnival in Owensboro." Several scholars believe Bethea's execution was an important contributor to the eventual ban on public executions in America.
NPR "The Last Public Execution in America," Npr.org, May 1, 2001
Jan. 31, 1945
Private Eddie Slovik Becomes First American Executed for Desertion Since the Civil War
Private Eddie Slovik. Source: www.nndb.com (accessed Jan. 9, 2010)
"It was for the execution of a deserter, Private Eddie Slovik, he thereby achieving the unique distinction of being the only American soldier to be executed in that manner since 1864. During the Second World War 2,648 soldiers were tried by General Courts Martial, 49 being sentenced to death. They were all reprieved, their sentences being commuted to varying terms of imprisonment, but it was obviously felt that an example had to be made in Slovik's case, and all appeals for clemency were denied."
Geoffrey AbbottExecution: The Guillotine, the Pendulum, the Thousand Cuts, the Spanish Donkey, and 66 Other Ways of Putting Someone to Death, 2006
1946 - 1979
Jan. 13, 1947
US Supreme Court Finds That a Second Execution Attempt after Technical Malfunction Does Not Constitute Cruel and Unusual Punishment
Willie Francis photographed in his cell the evening of the first attempt to execute him. Source: www.executedtoday.com (accessed Jan. 8, 2010)
"In one case (Louisiana ex rel Francis v. Resweber, 329 U.S. 459 (1947) the Court confronted the situation of a young man who was condemned to die in the electric chair. For some reason, the chair was faulty, and although electric current apparently shot through the man, he survived. The issue was whether a second electrocution could proceed or whether it was barred by the constitutional proscription of cruel and unusual punishment, double jeopardy and other violations of due process. [US Supreme Court Justice] Frankfurter, finding that the chair's deficiency was entirely accidental, concurred in the decision of the [5-4] majority of the Supreme Court that nothing in the Constitution prevented the state from proceeding with a second execution, but he also implied that the situation was one in which a governor might be expected to intercede with executive clemency.
Not content with this, Frankfurter, after the opinion was filed, wrote a personal letter to the governor urging the extension of mercy... The governor allowed the execution."
Rosenberg's Become the First US Civilians Executed for Espionage
The Rosenbergs on their way from jail to court, 1951. Source: www.rosenbergtrial.org (accessed Jan. 8, 2010)
"Julius Rosenberg, 33, and his 35-year-old wife, Ethel, were accused of stealing technical information from the atom research centre in Los Alamos and turning it over to the KGB...
The Rosenbergs were sentenced to death on 5 April 1951 and despite numerous appeals for clemency were executed by the electric chair at Sing-Sing Prison on 19 June 1953. They were the only people in the United States ever executed for Cold War espionage, and their conviction fuelled US Senator Joseph McCarthy's anti-communist crusade against 'anti-American activities" by US citizens."
BBC "1951: Rosenbergs Guilty of Espionage," Bbc.co.uk, (accessed Dec. 16, 2009)
Several States Abolish Capital Punishment
"The movement against capital punishment revived again between 1955 and 1972. England and Canada completed exhaustive studies which were largely critical of the death penalty and these were widely circulated in the U.S. Death row criminals gave their own moving accounts of capital punishment in books and film. Convicted kidnapper Caryl Chessman published Cell 2455 Death Row and Trial by Ordeal. Barbara Graham's story was utilized in book and film with I Want to Live! after her execution. Television shows were broadcast on the death penalty. Hawaii and Alaska ended capital punishment in 1957, and Delaware did so the next year. Controversy over the death penalty gripped the nation forcing politicians to take sides. Delaware restored the death penalty in 1961. Michigan abolished capital punishment for treason in 1963. Voters in 1964 abolished the death penalty in Oregon. In 1965 Iowa, New York, West Virginia, and Vermont ended the death penalty. New Mexico abolished the death penalty in 1969.
Trying to end capital punishment state-by-state was difficult at best, so death penalty abolitionists turned much of their efforts to the courts."
Michael H. Reggio "History of the Death Penalty," Society's Final Solution: A History and Discussion of the Death Penalty, Ed. Laura Randa, MBA, 1997
June 3, 1968
US Supreme Court Forbids the Dismissal of Jurors Based on Personal Opposition to Capital Punishment
"Witherspoon v. Illinois: The Supreme Court rules that the practice of excluding prospective jurors who have reservations about the death penalty from capital trials results in juries whose sentencing decisions could be considered biased and therefore unconstitutional."
US Supreme Court Rules Death Penalty Unconstitutional as Administered and Overturns over 600 Death Sentences
William Furman at the time of his arrest on Aug. 11, 1967. Source: Rebecca Stetoff, Furman V. Georgia: Debating the Death Penalty, 2007.
"In Furman v. Georgia, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 on June 29, 1972 that in all cases before the court, the death penalty as administered violated the Eight and Fourteenth Amendments. Of the five Supreme Court Justices, William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall were alone in declaring the death penalty unconstitutional as a form of punishment entirely. Justice Brennan was sweeping in his indictment, claiming the death penalty was unconstitutional for any crime, any person, using any method. All five justices concurred on the grounds of arbitrariness. Specifically, Justice Stewart proclaimed that the decisions were randomly made as if 'being struck by lightening.' At the same time the death penalty was declared random, it was also declared discriminatory in its application...
The Furman decision invalidated the death penalty statutes in several states. Thirty-five states responded to this ruling, not by abolishing capital punishment, but by using Furman as a guideline for developing a constitutionally acceptable statute. During this moratorium, hundreds of sentences were commuted to life imprisonment."
National Conference of Catholic Bishops Publicly Opposes Death Penalty
"The National Conference of Catholic Bishops speaks out against capital punishment in a reversal of the traditional Roman Catholic Church position supporting the death penalty as a legitimate means of self-protection for the state."
US Supreme Court Reaffirms Constitutionality of Death Penalty
US Supreme Court. Source: www.supremecourt.gov (accessed Apr. 21, 2010)
"The Supreme Court reaffirmed the constitutionality of capital punishment for aggravated murder in [the July 2, 1976, 7-2 decision] Gregg v. Georgia. The question presented to the Court in this case was whether the imposition of capital punishment under Georgia's revised death penalty statute was prohibited under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment to the federal Constitution...
On appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed Gregg's conviction and death sentence because Georgia's revised death penalty statute provided for bifurcated trials, consideration of mitigating circumstances of the defendant and the crime, and appellate review of capital sentences. The Court affirmed these guidelines because Georgia intended them to prevent arbitrary and discriminatory imposition of the death penatly."
Gary Gilmore Becomes the First Person to be Executed in the US in 10 Years
Gary Gilmore in court, 1976. Source: www.apsu.edu (accessed Jan. 8, 2010)
"Gregg gave states the green light to implement the death penalty, as long as juries received adequate guidance. Half a year later, on January 17, 1977, the first execution in the United States since June 1967 took place. The condemned man was Gary Gilmore, convicted in Utah of murder. Like Wallace Wilkerson in the Utah Territory a century earlier, Gilmore was executed by firing squad - at his request."
US Supreme Court Finds Death Penalty to be an Excessive Punishment for Rape Crimes
"Shortly after it revived state death penalty schemes in Gregg v. Georgia (1976), the U.S. Supreme Court was asked [in Coker v. Georgia]to determine whether the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishments prohibited the death penalty for rape...
Justice Bryon White's plurality opinion for the Supreme Court [in a 7-2 vote on June 29, 1977,] reversed the sentence, finding the death penalty disproportionate to the crime of raping an adult woman."
American Medical Association Passes Resolution Saying Physicians Should Not Participate in Executions
"The debate about the role of doctors in executions was never addressed seriously until legislation in 1977 in the states of Oklahoma and Texas introduced execution by lethal injection onto their statutes. This started a vigorous discussion with the weight of argument being against participation. In 1980, the Judicial Affairs Committee on the American Medical Association approved a statement recalling that the doctor's role was to preserve life where there was a possibility of doing so and that the only possible role for a doctor at an execution was to certify the death of the prisoner." In June 1980, the House of Delegates of the AMA approved the resolution.
US Supreme Court Rules That Capital Punishment Is Excessive for a Defendant Who Played a Minor Role in a Felony Murder
"The United States Supreme Court (Endmund v. Florida) overturns [in a 5-4 vote on July 2, 1982] the death sentence of a man who was convicted of the robbery and murder of an elderly couple in Florida. Endmund had not directly participated in the murders himself, but had only drive the getaway car. This was enough, under Florida law, to make him a 'constructive aider and abettor' in the killings, and so liable to the death penalty. However, a majority of five of the Supreme Court justices rules that this is not enough to subject him to the death penalty, since they find Endmund had no intent to kill."
Illustration of Charles Brooks execution, Dec. 7, 1982. Source: "Charlie Brooks, Jr.," www.clarkprosecutor.org
"In 1977, an Oklahoma medical examiner named Jay Chapman proposed that death-row inmates be executed using three drugs administered in a specific sequence: a barbiturate (to anesthetize inmates), pancuronium bromide (to paralyze inmates and stop their breathing) and lastly potassium chloride (which stops the heart)... Chapman's proposal was approved by the Oklahoma state legislature the same year and quickly adopted by other states...
[On Dec. 2, 1982,] Texas became the first to use the procedure, executing 40-year-old Charles Brooks for murdering Fort Worth mechanic David Gregory."
TIME"A Brief History of Lethal Injection," Time website, Nov. 10, 2009
July 26, 1983
US Supreme Court Approves Streamlined Federal Appeals Procedures for Capital Crimes
Convicted cop-killer Thomas Barefoot, 1983. Source: "Justices Give Killer a Reprieve," Gainseville Sun, Jan. 25, 1983
"Barefoot v. Estelle: The Supreme Court upholds expedited federal review procedures in death penalty appeals [in a 6-3 vote on July 26, 1983] and also upholds the prosecution's right to present psychiatric evidence regarding a defendant's future dangerousness during the penalty phase of a capital trial."
US Supreme Court Rules Execution of Insane Persons Unconstitutional
"[In] Ford v. Wainwright, 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court held [in a 5-4 vote on June 26, 1986] that the execution of an insane prisoner was an unconstitutional violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition of cruel and unsual punishment."
Stuart Kirk, DSWMental Disorders in the Social Environment: Critical Perspectives, 2004
Nov. 4, 1986
California Chief Justice Rose Bird Is Voted Out of Office for Voting Record in Death Penalty Cases
Chief Justice Rose Bird. Source: www.latimes.com (accessed Jan. 8, 2010)
"In 1986, California Chief Justice Rose Bird and two other 'liberal' members of the state supreme court were ousted in a retention election. The election followed a bitter campaign that centered on the three justices' records in death penalty cases."
A Study Finds 350 Cases of Defendents Wrongfully Convicted for Capital Crimes
"In 1987, Hugo Bedau and Michael Radelet published a landmark study [in the Stanford Law Review](5 MB) documenting 350 cases involving defendants convicted of capital crimes in the United States between 1900 and 1985 and who were later found to be innocent. In the decade following the publication of that study, scores of additional death row inmates were discovered to have been falsely convicted, largely through the emergence of DNA evidence."
US Supreme Court Rules Executions of Individuals Under Age of 16 Unconstitutional
"The main issue the Supreme Court considered in Thompson v. Oklahoma was whether it is constitutional to execute a person who was a 'child' at the time he committed the offense. Thompson's attorneys argued that he should not be executed because this would violate Thompson's rights, as a 'child,' under the Eighth Amendment, which forbids 'cruel and unusual punishment.'
In June 1988 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in a [5-3] majority decision, to vacate the order to excute Thompson. The majority opinion by Justice John Paul Stevens noted that 'evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society' compelled the conclusion that it would be unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution to execute a person for a crime committed as a fifteen-year-old."
First CA Execution in 25 Years Proceeds after US Supreme Court Prevents Lower Courts from Granting Further Stays
Robert Alton Harris. Source: www.cdcr.ca.gov (accessed Jan. 9, 2010)
"After an extraordinary bicoastal judicial duel kept his fate in doubt throughout the night, Robert Alton Harris died in San Quentin's gas chamber at sunrise Tuesday, becoming the first person executed in California in 25 years. Harris, 39, was pronounced dead at 6:21 a.m., just 36 minutes after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the last of four overnight reprieves that delayed his execution by more than six hours.
Earlier Tuesday, a seemingly jaunty Harris came within seconds of death but was rescued by a federal judge, who halted the execution even as the acid used to form the lethal gas flowed into a vat beneath the prisoner's seat. That final stay was quickly tossed out by the U.S. Supreme Court, which clearly had had its fill of the Harris case. In an unprecedented ruling that capped a night of coast-to-coast faxes and deliberations the justices voted 7 to 2 to forbid any federal court from meddling further in the execution."
Los Angeles Times"Harris Dies After Judicial Duel 4 Stays Quashed," Los Angeles Times, Apr. 22, 1992
Jan. 25, 1993
US Supreme Court Rules That New Evidence of Innocence Does Not Entitle Prisoners to Be Freed Unless It Also Shows a Constitutional Violation
"The Supreme Court in Herrera v. Collins held [in a 6-3 vote on Jan. 25, 1993] that a death-row inmate is not ordinarily entitled to relief where a claim of innonence is based on newly discovered evidence, unless the claim also includes an independent constitutional violation. The Supreme Court found that there is no due process violation in the execution of someone who was arguably innocent."
Kirk Bloodsworth Becomes First American Sentenced to Death Row to Be Exonerated with DNA Testing
Kirk Bloodsworth was released from prison on June 28, 1993 after a DNA test showed that a semen stain on the underwear of the 9-year-old girl he was twice convicted of raping and killing was not his. Bloodsworth spent one year awaiting trial, two years on death row, and then six years in prison after his death sentence was commuted to a life sentence before being exonerated. Bloodsworth is the first prisoner to have served time on death row to be exonerated with DNA testing. He received $300,000 in compensation for wrongful imprisonment and was granted a full pardon in Dec. 1994 by Maryland Governor William Donald Schaefer.
CNN"Kirk Bloodsworth, Twice Convicted of Rape and Murder, Exonerated by DNA Evidence," CNN.com, June 20 2000
Federal Death Penalty Is Expanded When President Clinton Signs 1994 Crime Bill
President Clinton signs the 1994 crime bill, 1994. Source: www.gpo.gov (accessed Jan. 9, 2010)
"The 1994 crime bill(1.4 MB) - passed by the Democratic 103rd Congress (1993-4) and signed by President Clinton - created sixty new federal crimes for which the death penalty could be imposed and extended it to include certain drug offences." Offenses eligible for the federal death penalty include large-scale drug trafficking, terorrist homicides, murder of a Federal law enforcement officer, and drive-by-shootings and carjackings that result in a death.
Release of the Film Dead Man Walking Invigorates Debate on Death Penalty
Poster for the film Dead Man Walking, 1996. Source: www.cuadp.org (accessed Jan. 9, 2010)
In 1994, Sister Helen Prejean released a book [titled Dead Man Walking]about her role as spiritual advisor for two death row inmates. The book was adapted into an Academy-Award-winning film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. The popularity of the film [Dead Man Walking]led to increased levels of public discourse on the morality of the death penalty.
James T. Vaughn Correctional Center where Delaware's only gallows stood between 1986 and 2003. www.dpc.delaware.gov (accessed Apr. 26, 2010)
Convicted double-murder Bill Bailey was executed by hanging on Jan. 25, 1996 in Delaware. Bailey was the third person executed by hanging since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 and the first hanging in Delaware since 1946. As of Apr. 21, 2010, Bailey was the last person executed by hanging in the US.
CNN "Delaware Holds First Hanging Since 1946," CNN.com, Jan. 25, 1996
Apr. 24, 1996
Ability of Judges to Reverse Sentences of Death Row Inmates Is Restricted
"Over the past decade, death penalty proponents have made successful efforts at both the state and federal level to streamline the capital appeals process and expedite executions. The most significant of these efforts is the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA). Capital punishment proponents argued that death row inmates abused the writ of habeas corpus by filing multiple, repetitive petitions. Congress passed AEDPA to restrict the availability of federal habeas relief in several significant manners." The bill passed 293-133-7 in the House of Representatives and 91-8-1 in the Senate. It was signed into law on Apr. 24, 1996.
American Bar Association Urges a Halt to Executions
"On February 3, 1997, the ABA therefore took action that it hoped would focus more attention on systemic problems and lack of fairness in the application of the death penalty in the United States. While taking no position on the death penalty per se, the ABA adopted a resolution initiated by the Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities that urges a halt to executions until concerns about capital punishment in the U.S. are addressed. Specifically, the resolution calls for capital jurisdictions to impose a moratorium on all executions until they can (1) ensure that death penalty cases are administered fairly and impartially, in accordance with due process, and (2) minimize the risk that innocent persons may be executed."
American Bar Association "Policy History: Death Penalty Moratorium Implementation Project," American Bar Association website (accessed Dec. 21, 2009)
Mar. 3, 1999
Last Execution by Gas Chamber
German national Walter LaGrand was executed in an Arizona gas chamber on Mar. 3, 1999. In addition to US courts, his case was also heard by the International Court of Justice in the Hague, where "Judge Christopher Weeramantry of Sri Lanka urged the US Government to use 'all the measures at its disposal' to prevent the execution. Germany asked the world court to intervene after Arizona Governor Jane Hull rejected appeals from German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer to stop the execution. Germany does not have the death penalty and contends Arizona failed to advise the LaGrand brothers of their right to consular assistance at their trials. The LaGrands were born in Germany but came to the United States when they were children."
LaGrand twice refused offers of lethal injeciton and reportedly chose the gas chamber to protest the death penalty. As of Apr. 21, 2010, LaGrand is the last prisoner to be executed by the gas chamber.
BBC "World: Americas Countdown to US execution," BBC.co.uk, Mar. 4, 1999
2000 - Present
Jan. 31, 2000
Illinois Governor George Ryan Declares a Moratorium on Executions
Governor George Ryan. Source: www.life.com (accessed Jan. 9, 2010)
"In 2000, Illinois Governor George Ryan declared a moratorium on the death penalty in response to the exonerations that were revealing persistent errors in the administration of capital punishment. Since the death penalty was reinstated in that state in 1977, 12 death row inmates had been executed and 13 were exonerated. In 2003, he granted clemency to all 167 persons on the state's death row. His actions were fiercely attacked by capital-punishment advocates who accused him of abusing his power but were applauded both by legal scholars across country and by the growing movement to abolish the death penalty."
Texas and Governor George W. Bush Lead US with Most Executions
In 2000, Texas led the US in executions with 40 inmates being put to death. Oklahoma followed with 11, Virginia with 8, and Florida with 6 executions. Between 1976 and Mar. 30, 2010, Texas executed 452 inmates. Virginia came in second most with 106 executions and Oklahoma in third with 92 executions.
Between Jan. 17, 1995 and Dec. 21, 2000, Texas Governor George W. Bush presided over the execution of 150 men and two women, more than any other governor since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Governor Bush received a summary from his legal counsel before each execution to determine whether or not to allow the execution to proceed. The first fifty-seven summaries were prepared by Alberto R. Gonzales, who served as US Attorney General under President Bush between Feb. 3, 2005 and Sep. 17, 2007. Governor Bush granted one clemency during his term in office.
Oklahoma City Bomber Timothy McVeigh Becomes the First Federal Prisoner to Be Executed in 38 Years
Timothy McVeigh on the cover of Time magazine, 1997. Source: www.time.com (accessed Jan. 9, 2010)
Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh becomes the first federal prisoner to be executed in 38 years. McVeigh was responsible for the death of 168 people in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City on Apr. 19, 1995.
BBC "Defiant McVeigh Dies in Silence," BBC.co.uk, June 11, 2001
June 20, 2002
US Supreme Court Rules the Execution of Mentally Retarded Offenders Unconstitutional
"The Constitution bars the execution of mentally retarded offenders, the Supreme Court declared today in a landmark death penalty ruling based on the majority's view that a 'national consensus' now rejected such executions as excessive and inappropriate.
Of the 38 states that have a death penalty, 18 now prohibit executing the retarded, up from 2 when the court last considered the question in 1989. This 'dramatic shift in the state legislative landscape,' especially when anticrime legislation is extremely popular, 'provides powerful evidence that today our society views mentally retarded offenders as categorically less culpable than the average criminal,' Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the 6-to-3 majority" on June 20,2002.
New York Times "Citing 'National Consensus,' Justices Bar Death Penalty for Retarded Defendants," New York Times, June, 21, 2002
June 24, 2002
US Supreme Court Rules That Juries, Not Judges, Must Determine Presence of Aggravating Factors Necessary for a Death Sentence
"In Ring v. Arizona (2002), the Supreme Court ruled [7-2 on June 24, 2002] that juries, rather than judges, must make the crucial factual decisions as to whether a convicted murderer should receive the death penalty. Ring v. Arizona overturned the law of that and four others - Colorado, Idaho, Montana, and Nebraska - where judges alone decided whether there were aggravating factors that warrant capital punishment. The decision also raised questions about the procedure in four other states - Alabama, Delaware, Florida, and Indiana - where the judge decided life imprisonment or death after hearing a jury's recommendation. The Ring opinion also says that any aggravating factors must be stated in the indictment, thus also requiring a change in federal death penalty laws."
"New York State's highest court ruled yesterday that a central provision of the state's capital punishment law violated the State Constitution. Lawyers said the ruling would probably spare the lives of the four men now on death row and effectively suspend the death penalty in New York. The 4-to-3 ruling from the State Court of Appeals in Albany went well beyond the particulars of a single case, giving opponents of the law an important victory. Besides the four death-row inmates, lawyers said, it could spare the lives of nine defendants fighting capital cases and more than 30 others whose murder cases are in early stages… [T]he court's majority said, ‘Under the present statute, the death penalty may not be imposed.'"
New York Times "4-3 Ruling Effectively Halts Death Penalty in New York," nytimes.com, June 24, 2004
Mar. 1, 2005
Death Sentences for Offenders Under the Age of 18 Is Ruled Unconstitutional
Christopher Simmons was 17 when he kidnapped and killed a woman. Source: www.washingtonpost.com (accessed Jan. 9, 2010)
"Perhaps the most controversial death penalty decision by the Supreme Court in recent years was that handed down in 2005 in Roper v. Simmons. This ruling overturned a 1989 Supreme Court decision in Stanford v. Kentucky, which allowed the execution of persons who were age 16 or 17 at the time they committed their crimes. In Roper, the Court held that the execution of a person under the age of 18 is disproportionate punishment under the Eighth Amendment and, therefore, is cruel and unusual punishment."
"California executes Clarence Ray Allen, its oldest death row inmate, minutes after his 76th birthday. The execution took place despite arguments that putting to death an elderly, blind and wheelchair-bound man was cruel and unusual punishment. Allen arranged a triple murder 25 years ago."
CBS News "Capital Punishment Timeline," CBSnews.com, Oct. 16, 2007
Dec. 30, 2006
Execution of Saddam Hussein
Saddam Hussein at his trial, 2005. Source: www.nytimes.com (accessed Jan. 9, 2010)
"The US joined its arch-foe Iran today in hailing the justice of Saddam Hussein's execution, but European powers opposed the use of capital punishment even though they condemned the former dictator's crimes in Iraq.
US president George Bush said Saddam had received the kind of justice he denied his victims.
Some key US allies expressed discomfort at the execution. And Russia, which opposed the March 20, 2003 invasion to oust the dictator, and the Vatican expressed regret at the hanging which some Muslim leaders said would exacerbate the violence in Iraq."
United Nations General Assembly Passes a Resolution Calling for a Moratorium on the Death Penalty
United Nations General Assembly. Source: www.unmultimedia.org (accessed Apr. 21, 2010)
"The U.N. General Assembly passed a nonbinding resolution on Tuesday calling for a moratorium on the death penalty, overcoming protests from a bloc of states that said it undermined their sovereignty. The resolution(30 KB) , which calls for 'a moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty,' was passed by a 104 to 54 vote, with 29 abstentions...
Two similar moves in the 1990s failed in the assembly. The resolution's text stops short of an outright demand for immediate abolition; it carries no legal force but backers say it has powerful moral authority.
Among nations who voted against were Egypt, Iran, Singapore, the United States and a bloc of Caribbean states. Eighty-seven countries -- including the 27 European Union states, more than a dozen Latin American countries and eight African states -- jointly introduced the resolution, though opponents singled out the EU as the driving force."
Reuters "UN Assembly Calls for Moratorium on Death Penalty," Reuters.com, Dec. 18, 2007
June 25, 2008
US Supreme Court Finds Death Penalty Excessive for the Crime of Child Rape
Patrick O. Kennedy was spared execution in a 5-4 Supreme Court decision. Source: www.cnn.com (accessed Jan. 9, 2010)
"A divided U.S. Supreme Court barred the death penalty for the crime of child rape, saying a Louisiana man's execution would violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The justices, voting 5-4 [in Kennedy v. Louisiana on June 25, 2008], spared Patrick Kennedy from becoming the first person since 1964 to be executed in the U.S. for a crime other than murder. Kennedy was convicted of raping his 8-year-old stepdaughter.
`The death penalty is not a proportional punishment for the rape of a child,' Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court. The ruling extends a line of Supreme Court cases that have restricted the circumstances in which the death penalty can be applied. It also underscores Kennedy's significance as the court's deciding vote on many social issues.
The court divided along ideological lines. Justices Stephen Breyer, John Paul Stevens, David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined the majority. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented."
Bloomberg "Death Penalty for Child Rape Barred by Top U.S. Court," Bloomberg.com, June 25, 2008
Mar. 18, 2009
New Mexico Repeals the Death Penalty
Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. Source: www.deathpenalty.org (accessed Jan. 9, 2010)
"Gov. Bill Richardson, who has supported capital punishment, signed legislation to repeal New Mexico's death penalty, calling it the 'most difficult decision in my political life.'
The new law replaces lethal injection with a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. The repeal takes effect on July 1, and applies only to crimes committed after that date.
'Regardless of my personal opinion about the death penalty, I do not have confidence in the criminal justice system as it currently operates to be the final arbiter when it comes to who lives and who dies for their crime,' Richardson said."
Associated Press "New Mexico Governor Abolishes Capital Punishment," AP.org, Mar. 19, 2009
Sep. 30, 2009
Texas Governor Rick Perry Removes Four Members of a Commission Before They Issue a Report That Casts Doubt on the Guilt of an Executed Prisoner
Governor Rick Perry. Source: www.austinchronicle.com (accessed Jan. 9, 2010)
"Did Texas execute an innocent man? That question, and the controversy surrounding it, continues to dog Gov. Rick Perry. Critics say the governor has tried to squelch an investigation into the case. Now the issue has moved to the forefront of Perry's effort to win re-election.
At the heart of the controversy is Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed by lethal injection in 2004 after being convicted of setting a house fire in Corsicana that killed his three children.
The Texas Forensic Science Commission hired a nationally recognized arson expert to examine the fire science used to convict Willingham. In a report made public in August, that expert, Craig Beyler, asserted the initial arson investigation was deeply flawed, adding his voice to those of other fire investigators who now doubt whether arson caused the fatal blaze.
Just as the commission was set to hear from Beyler in late September, Perry abruptly removed three of its members, including the chairman. The chairman, Sam Bassett, later said he felt pressure from the governor's office because it was unhappy over how the Willingham probe was proceeding."
Ohio Performs the First Execution with a One-Drug Intravenous Lethal Injection
Execution chamber at Southern Ohio Correction Facility in Lucasville where Kenneth Biros was executed. Source: www.cleveland.com (accessed Jan. 9, 2010)
"On Dec. 8, 2009, Ohio prison officials executed a death row inmate, Kenneth Biros, with a one-drug intravenous lethal injection, a method never before used on a human. The new method, which involved a large dose of anesthetic, akin to how animals are euthanized, has been hailed by most experts as painless and an improvement over the three-drug cocktail used in most states, but it is unlikely to settle the debate over the death penalty.
While praising the shift to a single drug, death penalty opponents argue that Ohio's new method, and specifically its backup plan of using intra-muscular injection, has not been properly vetted by legal and medical experts and that since it has never been tried out on humans before, it is the equivalent of human experimentation. But the United States Supreme Court refused to intervene and the procedure went largely as planned."
Lowest Annual Number of Death Sentences Handed Down in 2009 since Death Penalty was Reinstated in 1976
"Use of capital punishment by states continues its steady decline, with fewer death sentences handed down in 2009 than any year since the death penalty was reinstated by the Supreme Court in 1976. Year-end figures released Friday by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) show 11 states are now considering abolishing executions, with many legislators citing high costs associated with incarcerating and handling often decades-long appeals by death row inmates...
Fifty-two inmates were executed this year in 11 states... As in previous years, Texas in 2009 led the states in executions, with 24 -- four times as many as the next-highest, Alabama...
Nine men who had been sentenced to death were exonerated and freed in 2009, most after new DNA or other forensic testing cleared them, or raised doubts their culpability. That is the second highest total since the death penalty was reinstated 33 years ago."
CNN "Death Penalty Use Declining Nationwide," CNN.com, Dec. 18, 2009
June 18, 2010
Last Execution by Firing Squad
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff Announces on Microblogging site Twitter He Had Given FInal Approval for Gardner's Execution. Source: www.twitter.com (accessed June 18, 2010)
"Utah executed convicted killer Ronnie Lee Gardner after midnight this morning by firing squad. He becomes just the third person [all in Utah] in the last 33 years to be executed by being shot and likely one of the last. Utah has eliminated the firing squad (Gardner, convicted before the legal change, was grandfathered in) and it only remains legal as a means of execution in Oklahoma - even then, only as a backup.
Gardner’s attorney said he chose the method of execution because it was 'more humane' than a lethal injection."
"A hood was placed over Gardner's head and a paper target pinned to his chest. He was heavily restrained as a five-person firing squad took aim at the target and shot him, witnesses said... Gardner, 49, was convicted for the shooting death of attorney Michael Burdell during a botched escape attempt from custody in 1985 at a Salt Lake City, Utah, courthouse."
As of June 18, 2010, Gardner was the last person executed by firing squad in the US.
TIME"Ronnie Lee Gardner Executed By Firing Squad," TIME website, June 18, 2010
CNN "Killer Executed by Utah Firing Squad," CNN.com, June 18, 2010
Lethal Drug Shortage Delays Executions in Kentucky
"Some states are delaying executions because of a shortage of sodium thiopental, a drug used as an anesthetic and given to prisoners during lethal injections. It's one of three drugs used for lethal injection in more than 30 states...
Some states have been trying to get additional supplies of the drug for months. In August, Gov. Steve Beshear was asked to sign death warrants for three prisoners in Kentucky but could set only one execution date because it only had a single dose.
'We've had the drug on back order since March,' says Todd Henson, a spokesman for the Kentucky Department of Corrections. 'The company that supplies it to us advised that they were unable to produce it because they weren't able to get the active ingredient from their supplier.'
Hospira, based in Lake Forest, Ill., is apparently the only manufacturer of the drug. The company has told Kentucky officials it won't be available until early next year."
NPR "States Delay Executions Owing to Drug Shortage," NPR.org, Sep. 16, 2010
Sep. 23, 2010
Woman with 72 IQ Executed in Virginia
"Teresa Lewis was put to death in Virginia on Thursday for arranging the killings of her husband and a stepson over a $250,000 insurance payment. The 41-year-old was the first woman to be executed in the United States in five years...
More than 7,300 appeals to stop the execution - the first of a woman in Virginia since 1912 - had been made to the governor in a state second only to Texas in the number of people it executes.
Texas held the most recent U.S. execution of a woman in 2005. Out of more than 1,200 people put to death since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, only 11 have been women.
Lewis, who defense attorneys said was borderline mentally disabled, had inspired other inmates by singing Christian hymns in prison. Her execution stirred an unusual amount of attention because of her gender, claims she lacked the intelligence to mastermind the killings and the post-conviction emergence of defense evidence that one of the triggermen manipulated her." Under US law, anyone with an execution under 70 cannot be excuted. Lewis was judged to have an IQ of 72.
CBS News "Teresa Lewis Execution: Virginia Executes Woman Amid Outcry," CBSnews.com, Sep. 24, 2010
"The sole U.S. maker of the anesthetic used in executions announced Friday [Jan. 21, 2011] it would stop manufacturing sodium thiopental to prevent its product from being used to put prisoners to death...
Hospira Inc., of Lake Forest, Ill., stopped making its brand of sodium thiopental, Pentothal, at a North Carolina plant early last year because of an unspecified raw material supply problem. When Hospira attempted to move production to a factory in Liscate, Italy, near Milan, Italian authorities demanded assurances that the drug wouldn't end up in the hands of executioners. Hospira spokesman Dan Rosenberg said company officers couldn't make that guarantee and decided instead to ‘exit the sodium thiopental market.’
...California corrections officials imported a large quantity of sodium thiopental - enough for about 90 executions - from a British distributor in November, before a public outcry in Britain led to a ban on export of the drug to the United States."
Los Angeles Times"Maker of Anesthetic Used in Executions Is Discontinuing Drug" Los Angeles Times, Jan. 22, 2011
Apr. 25, 2012
Connecticut Repeals the Death Penalty
"The governor of Connecticut on Wednesday signed into law a repeal of the death penalty, making it the fifth state in recent years to abandon capital punishment. Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy signed the legislation without fanfare behind closed doors, saying in a statement it was 'a moment for sober reflection, not celebration.'
With the law, which replaces the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole, Connecticut joins 16 other states and the District of Columbia that do not allow capital punishment...
The repeal in Connecticut applies only to future sentences, and the 11 men on its death row now still face execution. However some legal experts have said defense attorneys could use the repeal measure to win life sentences for those inmates."
Reuters "Connecticut Abolishes Death Penalty," Reuters.com, Apr. 25, 2012
May 2, 2013
Maryland Becomes 18th State to Repeal the Death Penalty
"Maryland's governor signed a bill Thursday repealing the death penalty. The legislation goes into effect October 1. In those cases in which the state has filed a notice to seek a death sentence, ‘the notice shall be considered withdrawn and it shall be considered a notice to seek a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole under specified circumstances,’ according to a press release from the office of Governor Martin O'Malley…”
CNN "Maryland Governor Signs Death Penalty Repeal," cnn.com, May 2, 2013