History of the Death Penalty
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1700 BC - 1799
1700s BC - Code of Hammurabi Codifies the Death Penalty for the First Time"The Code of Hammurabi, 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."
Death Penalty: Fair Solution or Moral Failure?, 2009
1608 - First Recorded Execution in the British American Colonies Was for Treason"[W]hen 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."
Capital Punishment, 2003
1682 - Pennsylvania Limits Crimes Punishable by Death to Treason and MurderPennsylvania 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.
The Cradle of the Penitentiary: The Walnut Jail at Philadelphia, 1773-1885, 1955
1764 - Italian Jurist Presents a Critique of the Death Penalty That Influences Abolitionists
Capital Punishment: A Reference Handbook, 2001
1775 - Death Penalty Used in All 13 US Colonies at Outbreak of American RevolutionBy 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."
"History of the Death Penalty," Pbs.org (accessed Dec. 16, 2009)
1787 - 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 ambiguous 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."
Governing America: The Politics of a Divided Democracy, 2003
1787 - At Least One Declaration of Independence Signer against the Death PenaltyAt 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.
"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 Federal Congress: Creation of the Judiciary," gwu.edu (accessed Jan. 27, 2010)
June 25, 1790 - 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."
Retired U.S. Marshalls Association, Nov. 9, 2001
1793 - PA Attorney General's Writings Introduce Concept of Varying Degrees of Murder and Contributes to Softening of Death Penalty Laws"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."
Furman v. Georgia: Debating the Death Penalty, 2007
1800 - 1944
1833-1835 - Public Executions Are Attacked as Cruel and States Switch to Private HangingsStarting 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."
"History of the Death Penalty," pbs.org (accessed Dec. 16, 2009)
Jan. - Feb. 1843 - 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."
Rites of Execution: Capital Punishment and the Transformation of American Culture, 1776-1865, 1991
1845 - First National Death Penalty Abolition Society Is FormedThe first national death penalty abolition society, the American Society for the Abolition of Capital Punishment, is founded.
"The Evolution of the Death Penalty in the United States," infousa.state.gov (accessed Dec. 15, 2009)
1846 - 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."
"The Death Penalty in the United States," Battleground Criminal Justice Vol. 1, Ed. Gregg Barak, PhD, 2007
1852 - Rhode Island Becomes the First State to Outlaw the Death Penalty for All Crimes (Including Treason)"The first state to outlaw the death penalty for all crimes, including treason, was Rhode Island, in 1852; Wisconsin was the second state to do so a year later."
"The Death Penalty in the United States," Battleground Criminal Justice Vol. 1, Ed. Gregg Barak, PhD, 2007
July 9, 1868 - 14th Amendment Is Ratified and Later Used to Challenge the Death PenaltyThe Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution is ratified 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.
"The Fourteenth Amendment, the 'Right' to Vote, and the Understanding of the Thirty-Ninth Congress," Supreme Court Review, 1965
1887-1903 - Thomas Edison Demonstrates Power of Electricity by Electrocuting Animals"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.
Death Penalty: Fair Solution or Moral Failure?, 2009
[Warning: The video contains graphic and potentially emotionally jarring material. A Jan. 4, 1903 video of Thomas Edison electrocuting Topsy the Elephant can be viewed here.]
Aug. 6, 1890 - New York State Performs the First Execution by Electrocution with the Assistance of Thomas Edison's Engineers"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."
Death Penalty: Fair Solution or Moral Failure?, 2009
1895-1917 - 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."
Society's Final Solution: A History and Discussion of the Death Penalty, 1997
May 2, 1910 - Weems v. United States Establishes Precedents on "Cruel and Unusual Punishment""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."
and Roger LeRoy Miller, PhD , Criminal Justice in Action, 2008
Feb. 8, 1924 - First US Execution by Gas Chamber Carried Out in Nevada"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."
"First Execution by Lethal Gas," history.com (accessed Dec. 16, 2009)
Mar. 1, 1932 - 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."
Capital Punishment, Revised Edition, 2000
Aug. 14, 1936 - Last Public ExecutionAt 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.
"The Last Public Execution in America," npr.org, May 1, 2001
1945 - 1979
Jan. 31, 1945 - Private Eddie Slovik Becomes First American Executed for Desertion Since the Civil War"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."
Jan. 13, 1947 - Supreme Court Finds Second Execution Attempt after Technical Malfunction Does Not Constitute Cruel and Unusual Punishment"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."
and Joseph Sanders, JD, PhD, An Invitation to Law and Social Science: Desert, Disputes, and Distribution, 1989
June 19, 1953 - Rosenbergs Become the First US Civilians Executed for Espionage"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."
"1951: Rosenbergs Guilty of Espionage," bbc.co.uk, (accessed Dec. 16, 2009)
1957-1972 - 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."
Society's Final Solution: A History and Discussion of the Death Penalty, 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."
and Cynthia Morris, Capital Punishment in the United States: A Documentary History, 1997
June 29, 1972 - US Supreme Court Rules Death Penalty Unconstitutional as Administered and Overturns over 600 Death Sentences"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."
and Karol Lucken, PhD, American Penology: A History of Control, 2000
Nov. 21, 1974 - 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."
Capital Punishment, Revised Edition, 2000
July 2, 1976 - US Supreme Court Reaffirms Constitutionality of Death Penalty"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 penalty."
Racial Issues in Criminal Justice: The Case of African Americans, 2003
Jan. 17, 1977 - Gary Gilmore Becomes the First Person to Be Executed in the United States in 10 Years"Gregg [v. Georgia] 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."
Furnam v. Georgia: Debating the Death Penalty, 2007
June 29, 1977 - 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."
The Encyclopedia of American Civil Liberties, 2006
1980 - 1999
June 1980 - 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.
Medicine Betrayed: The Participation of Doctors in Human Rights Abuses, 1992
July 2, 1982 - 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."
Capital Punishment: A Reference Handbook, 2001
Dec. 7, 1982 - Texas Performs First Lethal Injection"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. 7, 1982,] Texas became the first to use the procedure, executing 40-year-old Charles Brooks for murdering Fort Worth mechanic David Gregory."
"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"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."
and Cynthia Morris, Capital Punishment in the United States: A Documentary History, 1997
June 26, 1986 - 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 unusual punishment."
Mental 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"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."
Law in the Western United States, 2000
Nov. 1987 - A Study Finds 350 Cases of Defendants Wrongfully Convicted for Capital Crimes"In 1987, Hugo Bedau and Michael Radelet published a landmark study [in the Stanford Law Review] 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."
Errors of Justice: Nature, Sources, and Remedies, 2003
June 29, 1988 - 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 execute 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."
Intentions in the Experience of Meaning, 1999
Apr. 21, 1992 - First CA Execution in 25 Years Proceeds after US Supreme Court Prevents Lower Courts from Granting Further Stays"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."
"Harris Dies After Judicial Duel 4 Stays Quashed," Los Angeles Times, Apr. 22, 1992
Jan. 25, 1993 - Supreme Court Rules New Evidence of Innocence Does Not Entitle Prisoners to Be Freed Unless Also 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 innocence 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."
Alan Clarke, JD, LLM, and Laurelyn Whitt, PhD The Bitter Fruit of American Justice: International and Domestic Resistance to the Death Penalty, 2007
June 28, 1993 - Kirk Bloodsworth Becomes First American Sentenced to Death Row to Be Exonerated with DNA TestingKirk 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.
"Kirk Bloodsworth, Twice Convicted of Rape and Murder, Exonerated by DNA Evidence," CNN.com, June 20, 2000
1994 - Federal Death Penalty Is Expanded When President Clinton Signs 1994 Crime Bill"The 1994 crime bill - 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, terrorist homicides, murder of a Federal law enforcement officer, and drive-by-shootings and carjackings that result in a death.
Governing America: The Politics of a Divided Democracy, 2003
Jan. 12, 1996 - Release of the Film Dead Man Walking Invigorates Debate on Death PenaltyIn 1994, Sister Helen Prejean released a book Dead Man Walking about her role as spiritual adviser 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.
The Death Penalty: An Historical and Theological Survey, 1997
Jan. 25, 1996 - Last Execution by HangingConvicted 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 United States.
"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.
Capital Punishment in America: A Balanced Examination, 2004
Feb. 3, 1997 - 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."
"Policy History: Death Penalty Moratorium Implementation Project," American Bar Association website (accessed Dec. 21, 2009)
Mar. 3, 1999 - Last Execution by Gas ChamberGerman 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 injection 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.
"World: Americas Countdown to US execution," bbc.co.uk, Mar. 4, 1999
2000 - 2009
Jan. 31, 2000 - Illinois Governor George Ryan Declares a Moratorium on Executions"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."
"The Death Penalty in the United States," Battleground Criminal Justice Vol. 1, Ed. Gregg Barak, PhD, 2007
Dec. 21, 2000 - Texas and Governor George W. Bush Lead US with Most ExecutionsIn 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.
"Number of Executions by State and Region Since 1976,"Death Penalty Information Center website, Mar. 30, 2010
"The Texas Clemency Memos,"Atlantic, July/Aug. 2003
June 11, 2001 - Oklahoma City Bomber Timothy McVeigh First Federal Prisoner to Be Executed in 38 YearsOklahoma 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.
"Defiant McVeigh Dies in Silence," bbc.co.uk, June 11, 2001
June 20, 2002 - US Supreme Court Rules Executing People with Intellectual Disabilities Violates 8th AmendmentPetitioner Daryl Atkins and his accomplice, William Jones, were convicted for murder. The jury convicted Atkins of capital murder even though the defense presented Atkins's school records and IQ score of 59 alleging that he was "mildly mentally retarded." On appeal, the Supreme Court of Virginia affirmed the sentence. The US Supreme Court reviewed and reversed the Virginia Supreme Court's judgment on the grounds that judgments of state legislatures regarding punishment of the mentally disabled had become more lenient since Penry v. Lynaugh in 1989. The Court ruled: "Our independent evaluation of the issue reveals no reason to disagree with the judgment of 'the legislatures that have recently addressed the matter' and concluded that death is not a suitable punishment for a mentally retarded criminal. We are not persuaded that the execution of mentally retarded criminals will measurably advance the deterrent or the retributive purpose of the death penalty. Construing and applying the Eighth Amendment in the light of our 'evolving standards of decency,' we therefore conclude that such punishment is excessive and that the Constitution 'places a substantive restriction on the State's power to take the life' of a mentally retarded offender. The judgment of the Virginia Supreme Court is reversed and the case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion. It is so ordered."
Atkins v. Virginia, US Supreme Court, 536 U.S. 304, June 20, 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."
American Corrections, 2008
June 24, 2004 - Death Penalty Ruled Unconstitutional in New York"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.'"
"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"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."
Robert Regoli, PhD, and John D. Hewitt, PhD, Exploring Criminal Justice, 2007
Dec. 30, 2006 - Execution of Saddam Hussein"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."
"US Welcomes Saddam Hanging, Europe Opposes Execution," forbes.com, Dec. 30, 2006
Dec. 18, 2007 - United Nations General Assembly Passes a Resolution Calling for a Moratorium on the Death Penalty"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, 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."
"UN Assembly Calls for Moratorium on Death Penalty," reuters.com, Dec. 18, 2007
Apr. 16, 2008 - US Supreme Court Rules Lethal Injection Is ConstitutionalPetitioners Ralph Baze and Thomas C. Bowling, convicted for murder and sentenced to death in Kentucky state court, filed suit asserting that the lethal injection protocol violates the Eighth Amendment’s constitutional ban on "cruel and unusual punishments.” The state trial court upheld it as constitutional. Later, the Kentucky Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the lethal injection protocol was substantially safe from "wanton" and "unnecessary infliction of pain," torture, or "lingering death." The Supreme Court affirmed the lethal injection protocol as constitutional. The Court ruled: "Kentucky has adopted a method of execution believed to be the most humane available, one it shares with 35 other States... Throughout our history, whenever a method of execution has been challenged in this Court as cruel and unusual, the Court has rejected the challenge. Our society has nonetheless steadily moved to more humane methods of carrying out capital punishment. The firing squad, hanging, the electric chair, and the gas chamber have each in turn given way to more humane methods, culminating in today’s consensus on lethal injection... The broad framework of the Eighth Amendment has accommodated this progress toward more humane methods of execution, and our approval of a particular method in the past has not precluded legislatures from taking the steps they deem appropriate, in light of new developments, to ensure humane capital punishment. There is no reason to suppose that today’s decision will be any different. The judgment below concluding that Kentucky’s procedure is consistent with the Eighth Amendment is, accordingly, affirmed. It is so ordered."
Baze v. Rees, U.S. Supreme Court, 553 U.S., Apr. 16, 2008
June 25, 2008 - US Supreme Court Finds Death Penalty Excessive for the Crime of Child Rape"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."
"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"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."
"New Mexico Governor Abolishes Capital Punishment," ap.org, Mar. 19, 2009
Dec. 8, 2009 - Ohio Performs the First Execution with a One-Drug Intravenous Lethal Injection"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."
"Capital Punishment," nytimes.com, Dec. 18, 2009
Dec. 18, 2009 - 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."
"Death Penalty Use Declining Nationwide," cnn.com, Dec. 18, 2009
2010 - present
June 18, 2010 - Last Execution by Firing Squad"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."
"Ronnie Lee Gardner Executed By Firing Squad," TIME website, June 18, 2010
Aug. 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."
"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 executed. Lewis was judged to have an IQ of 72."
"Teresa Lewis Execution: Virginia Executes Woman Amid Outcry," cbsnews.com, Sep. 24, 2010
Jan. 21, 2011 - Sole Firm Stops Making Key Death Penalty Drug"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."
"Maker of Anesthetic Used in Executions Is Discontinuing Drug" latimes.com, 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."
"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."
"Maryland Governor Signs Death Penalty Repeal," cnn.com, May 2, 2013
Oct. 29, 2013 - US Death Penalty Support at Lowest Level in over 40 Years"Sixty percent of Americans say they favor the death penalty for convicted murderers, the lowest level of support Gallup has measured since November 1972, when 57% were in favor. Death penalty support peaked at 80% in 1994, but it has gradually declined since then."
"U.S. Death Penalty Support Lowest in More Than 40 Years," gallup.com, Oct. 29, 2013
Feb. 11, 2014 - Washington State Governor Suspends the Death Penalty"The governor of Washington, Jay Inslee, announced Tuesday that no executions would take place in the state while he remained in office, despite the fact that the death penalty was legal there. Citing 'problems that exist in our capital punishment system,' Mr. Inslee, a Democrat, said he would issue a reprieve in any death penalty case that crossed his desk, though he would not let any death row prisoners go free. A future governor could reverse this action, he noted, and order an execution to be carried out… Though Mr. Inslee had previously supported the death penalty, he said, ‘My responsibilities as governor have led me to re-evaluate that position.'"
"Executions Are Suspended by Governor in Washington," by Ian Lovett, nytimes.com, Feb. 11, 2014
May 22, 2014 - Tennessee Passes Law Allowing the State to Electrocute Death Row Inmates"Republican Gov. Bill Haslam signed a bill into law Thursday [May 22, 2014] allowing the state to electrocute death row inmates in the event prisons are unable to obtain the [lethal injection] drugs, which have become more and more scarce following a European-led boycott of drug sales for executions. Tennessee lawmakers overwhelmingly passed the electric chair legislation in April, with the Senate voting 23-3 and the House 68-13 in favor of the bill. Tennessee is the first state to enact a law to reintroduce the electric chair without giving prisoners an option… The decision comes as lethal injection is receiving more scrutiny as an execution method."
“Tennessee Brings Back Electric Chair,” bigstory.ap.org, May 23, 2014
July 16, 2014 - California’s Death Penalty Violates US Constitution, Rules Federal Judge"A federal judge in Orange County [US District Judge Cormac J. Carney] ruled Wednesday [on a petition by death row inmate Ernest Dewayne Jones] that California's death penalty violates the U.S. Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment… Carney said the state's death penalty has created long delays and uncertainty for inmates, most of whom will never be executed. He noted that more than 900 people have been sentenced to death in California since 1978 but only 13 have been executed... Natasha Minsker, a director of the ACLU of Northern California, said Wednesday's ruling marked the first time that a federal judge had found the state's current system unconstitutional. She said it was also 'the first time any judge has ruled systemic delay creates an arbitrary system that serves no legitimate purpose and is therefore unconstitutional.'"
"Federal Judge Rules California Death Penalty Is Unconstitutional," latimes.com, July 16, 2014
[Editor’s Note: On Aug. 21, 2014, California Attorney General Kamala Harris announced that she will appeal US District Judge Cormac J. Carney’s lower court decision to the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, “because it is not supported by the law, and it undermines important protections that our courts provide to defendants. This flawed ruling requires appellate review.” On Nov. 12, 2015, a three-judge panel of the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the ruling of US District Judge Cormac J. Carney. The court did not address the question of whether California’s death penalty was constitutional.]
Feb. 13, 2015 - Pennsylvania Governor Declares Death Penalty Moratorium"Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf halted all executions in his state Friday, citing the state's 'error prone' justice system and 'inherent biases' among his reasons for the moratorium... Wolf, a Democrat who ran his family's cabinet manufacturing business before becoming governor in January, said the moratorium would be in place until a task force examining capital punishment in Pennsylvania issues its final report."
"Pennsylvania Governor Halts Death Penalty While 'Error Prone' System Reviewed," cnn.com, Feb. 14, 2015
Mar. 23, 2015 - Utah Reinstates Use of the Firing Squad for Executions"Utah's governor signed a bill Monday that brings back firing squads as a potential way to execute some death row prisoners. Lethal injection remains the primary method for carrying out executions in the state, Gov. Gary R. Herbert said in a statement. A firing squad would only be used in the event the necessary drugs cannot be obtained… Utah banned death by firing squad in 2004, though inmates who chose that option before the law changed still ended up being shot to death. The last execution by firing squad was in 2010, and it was also the most recent execution in Utah."
“Utah to Allow Firing Squads for Executions,” cnn.com, Mar. 23, 2015
May 27, 2015 - Nebraska Legislature Abolishes the Death Penalty"Nebraska on Wednesday became the first conservative state in more than 40 years to abolish the death penalty... By a 30 to 19 vote that cut across party lines, the Legislature overrode the governor's veto on Tuesday of a bill repealing the state's death penalty law. The measure garnered just enough votes to overcome the veto... The vote at the State Capitol here capped a monthslong battle that pitted most lawmakers in the unicameral Legislature against the governor, many law enforcement officials and some family members of murder victims whose killers are on death row."
"Nebraska Abolishes Death Penalty," nytimes.com, May 27, 2015
June 29, 2015 - Supreme Court Upholds Use of Execution Drug Midazolam"The Supreme Court said states can continue to conduct executions using the sedative midazolam, rejecting claims the drug poses too great a risk that condemned prisoners will suffer excruciating pain. The 5-4 decision bitterly split the court on Monday. Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority, said the prisoners who brought suit failed to suggest an alternative to midazolam. He added the scarcity of more effective sedatives could be traced to the anti-death-penalty movement, which has pressured pharmaceutical manufacturers to stop supplying execution chambers. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas joined the majority. In a dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the majority's position left the condemned men 'exposed to what may well be the chemical equivalent of being burned at the stake.' Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan joined the dissent."
Glossip v. Gross Ruling, majority decision written by Justice Samuel Alito, June 29, 2015
Wall Street Journal, "Supreme Court Upholds Use of Death-Penalty Drug," by Jess Bravin, June 29, 2015
Aug. 13, 2015 - Connecticut Supreme Court Bans the Death Penalty"Connecticut's top court on Thursday ruled that the state could no longer impose the death penalty, saying that under the state's constitution it amounted to cruel and unusual punishment... The decision followed a 2012 state law that abolished capital punishment for crimes committed after that date but allowed it to be imposed for crimes previously committed... The court noted that the punishment is imposed only rarely, saying there was a 'freakishness' in its use and that there were wide disparities in its application depending on a defendant's race or economic class."
"Connecticut's Top Court Bans Death Penalty in State," reuters.com, Aug. 13, 2015
Jan. 12, 2015 - US Supreme Court Rules That Florida's Death Penalty Is Unconstitutional"The U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida’s... death penalty, faulting it for giving the jury only an advisory role in deciding whether capital punishment was warranted. The 8-1 ruling came in the case of Timothy Lee Hurst, who was convicted of stabbing a coworker to death in 1998 at a Popeye’s restaurant in Pensacola. A judge sentenced Hurst to death after a jury recommended execution on a 7-5 vote. The high court said Florida’s system violated the U.S. constitutional right to a jury trial because it required the judge to independently assess the circumstances of the crime and the appropriateness of capital punishment... Florida has 400 inmates on death row, second only to California... Now 'every single one of them will bring a Hurst challenge and the lower courts will sort it out in a variety of ways,' said Douglas Berman, a specialist on criminal sentencing who teaches at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law."
"Florida Death-Sentence System Voided by US Supreme Court," bloomberg.com, Jan. 12, 2016
Aug. 2, 2016 - Death Penalty Ruled Unconstitutional in Delaware"The Delaware Supreme Court has decided that the state's death penalty law violates the Sixth Amendment. The court was responding to a U.S. Supreme Court decision from a case in January — Hurst v. Florida — that found that Florida's death penalty law violated the Constitution because it gave judges — not juries — ultimate power to impose the death penalty… All pending capital murder trials and the executions of about a dozen prisoners in Delaware were put on hold pending the outcome of the case."
"Delaware Supreme Court Finds State's Death Penalty Law is Unconstitutional," npr.org, Aug. 2, 2016
[Editor’s Note: On Dec. 15, 2016 the Delaware Supreme court ruled that their Aug. 2nd decision should apply retroactively to the 12 men who were on Delaware’s death row.]
Nov. 8, 2016 - Nebraska Voters Reinstate the Death Penalty"Nebraska voters have restored the death penalty… Voters overturned the Legislature's decision last year to abolish capital punishment. A coalition partially financed by Ricketts [Nebraska’s Governor] launched a ballot drive that placed the issue on the ballot after lawmakers overrode the governor's veto in May 2015. Ricketts says the vote demonstrates clear public support for capital punishment in Nebraska."
“With Death Penalty Back, Nebraska Looks Ahead to Executions,” nytimes.com, Nov. 9, 2016
Aug. 14, 2018 - Synthetic Opioid Fentanyl Used for the First Time in a Lethal Injection Execution"Prison officials in Nebraska used fentanyl, the powerful opioid at the center of the nation’s overdose epidemic, to help execute a convicted murderer on Tuesday [Aug. 14]. The lethal injection at the Nebraska State Penitentiary was the first time fentanyl had been used to carry out the death penalty in the United States... The four-drug cocktail contained diazepam, a tranquilizer; fentanyl citrate, a powerful synthetic opioid that can block breathing and knock out consciousness; cisatracurium besylate, a muscle relaxant; and potassium chloride, which stops the heart."
Mitch Smith, "Fentanyl Used to Execute Nebraska Inmate, in a First for US," nytimes.com, Aug. 14, 2018
Oct. 11, 2018 - Washington Death Penalty Struck Down by State Supreme Court"Washington’s Supreme Court struck down the state’s death penalty Thursday [Oct. 11, 2018], ruling that it had been used in an arbitrary and racially discriminatory manner. Washington has had a moratorium on executions since 2014, but the ruling makes it the 20th state to do away with capital punishment."
"Washington Justices Toss Death Penalty as Arbitrary, Unfair," apnews.com, Oct. 11, 2018
Mar. 13, 2019 - California Governor Declares Death Penalty Moratorium"Gov. Gavin Newsom will sign an executive order on Wednesday [Mar. 13, 2019] to impose a moratorium on the death penalty in California, vowing that no prisoner in the state will be executed while he is in office because of a belief that capital punishment is discriminatory, unjust and 'inconsistent with our bedrock values.' The order will prevent the state from putting prisoners to death by granting temporary reprieves to all 737 condemned inmates on California's death row, the largest in the nation. It will immediately close the execution chamber at San Quentin State Prison and scuttle the state's ongoing efforts to devise a constitutional method for lethal injection. No inmate will be released and no sentence or conviction will be altered, the order says. Newsom joins governors in Oregon, Colorado and Pennsylvania who have imposed moratoriums on executions in those states, all using executive powers. The action runs counter to the expressed will of California voters, who over the last six years rejected two statewide ballot measures to repeal the death penalty and favored fast-tracking the appeals process."
"Gov. Gavin Newsom to Block California Death Row Executions, Close San Quentin Execution Chamber," latimes.com, Mar. 12, 2019
May 30, 2019 - New Hampshire Abolishes Death Penalty"New Hampshire is now the 21st U.S. state to have abolished capital punishment, after its legislature voted to override a veto by Republican Gov. Chris Sununu. After a years-long effort to repeal the state's death penalty, the state's Senate voted 16-8 Thursday to finally make it official... The last time New Hampshire executed a convicted murderer was in 1939, but the state does currently have an inmate on death row: Michael Addison, who was convicted of the 2006 killing of Manchester police officer Michael Briggs. The new law would not retroactively apply to Addison."
"New Hampshire Abolishes Death Penalty as Lawmakers Override Governor's Veto," npr.org, May 30, 2019
July 25, 2019 - US Federal Government to Resume Use of Death Penalty"The federal government will start carrying out death sentences for the first time in nearly two decades, Attorney General William Barr said Thursday [July 25, 2019], ordering officials to schedule executions for five inmates. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons has not executed anyone since 2003, and it faced legal challenges to how it planned to carry out capital punishment. In reversing the informal moratorium, Barr ordered the government to adopt a new method for executing prisoners, replacing its lethal cocktail with injections of a single drug, pentobarbital... The decision is a reversal by the federal government, which has executed three people since the death penalty was reinstated in 1988. President Donald Trump has frequently advocated for capital punishment."
Kristine Phillips, "Justice Department Resumes Capital Punishment after Nearly Two Decades, Orders Executions of Five Inmates," usatoday, July 25, 2019
Nov. 25, 2019 - Majority of Americans Support Life in Prison instead of Death Penalty for the First Time in 34 Years
- "60% say life imprisonment the better punishment, up from 45% in 2014
- This marks first time majority supports life in prison over death penalty
- 56% still broadly favor using the death penalty for convicted murderers
Jeffrey M. Jones, "Americans Now Support Life in Prison over Death Penalty," gallup.com, Nov. 25, 2019
Dec. 6, 2019 - Supreme Court Keeps Federal Executions on Hold until Lower Court Ruling"A series of federal executions that were set to begin on Monday [Dec. 9, 2019] will remain on hold, the Supreme Court said on Friday [Dec. 6].
The court's order is a loss for the Trump administration, which announced last July that it would reinstate the federal death penalty after a nearly two-decade lapse.
The Supreme Court denied the government's request to wipe away a lower court opinion that held inmates were likely to succeed in their argument that the new protocol conflicted with federal law...
Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh wrote separately to say they agreed with the court's decision but that they thought the lower court should be able to decide the case within the next 60 days.
The five federal inmates ordered to be executed are Daniel Lewis Lee, for murdering a family of three, including an 8-year-old girl; Lezmond Mitchell, for murdering a 63-year-old and her 9-year-old granddaughter; Wesley Ira Purkey, for raping and murdering a 16-year-old girl; Alfred Bourgeois, for torturing and killing his own 2-year-old daughter; Dustin Lee Honken, for shooting and killing five people, including two young girls.
Lawyers for the inmates filed an immediate appeal, challenging not the constitutionality of their executions but instead arguing that the government's new lethal injections protocol is unlawful.
A district judge blocked the executions from going forward, holding that the protocol conflicts with the Federal Death Penalty Act, which requires adherence to a state's method of execution.
The judge put the executions on hold, ruling that a delay would not hurt the government, particularly because it has waited several years to announce a new protocol."
Ariane de Vogue and David Shortell, "Supreme Court Blocks Justice Department from Restarting Federal Executions Next Week," cnn.com, Dec. 6, 2019
Mar. 23, 2020 - Colorado Becomes 22nd State to Abolish the Death PenaltyGovernor Jared Polis (D) signed SB 20-100 on Monday, Mar. 23, 2020 to abolish the death penalty as of July 1, 2020 and commute the sentences of the three men on death row to life in prison without parole.
The 1997 execution of Gary Lee Davis, who was convicted of kidnapping, raping, and murdering a woman, was the last execution performed in the state. The June 2009 death penalty sentence of Robert Ray for murder was the last time a Colorado jury imposed the death penalty.
Several capital cases were in progress when Polis signed the law. Because the law doesn't go into effect until July 1, 2020, it is not clear if those defendants are ineligible for the death penalty if convicted and sentenced before July.
Aris Folley, "Death Penalty Abolished in Colorado," the hill.com, Mar. 23, 2020
Jesse Paul and John Ingold, "Governor Signs Bill Abolishing Colorado's Death Penalty, Commutes Sentences of State's 3 Death Row Inmates," coloradosun.com, Mar. 23, 2020
Apr. 10, 2020 - Healthcare Workers Ask States to Release Execution Drugs to Fight COVID-19A group of nine pharmacists, doctors, and public health experts published an open letter to the US states asking that the drugs used for lethal injection be released to the healthcare community for use in the fight against COVID-19 (coronavirus). They stated: "Many of the medicines needed during this critical time are the same drugs used in lethal injection executions. These medicines were never made or developed to cause death – to the contrary, many were formulated to connect patients to life‐saving ventilators and lessen the discomfort of intubation... We urgently ask you to send any execution drug supplies in your storerooms to hospitals where they are needed to treat critically ill COVID‐19 patients. At this crucial moment for our country, we must prioritize the needs and lives of patients above ending the lives of prisoners." The drugs in question include four listed by the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists as in short supply: midazolam, vecuronium bromide, rocuronium bromide, and fentanyl. Other drugs used in executions that are needed for intubation and mechanical ventilation include rocuronium bromide, cisatracurium besylate, and etomidate.
Joel B. Zivot, et al., Letter to State Correctional Facility Directors, Apr. 2020
Asher Stockler, "Health Care Workers Ask States to Hand over Death Penalty Drugs Needed to Fight COVID-19 Pandemic," newsweek.com, Apr. 10, 2020
May 15, 2020 - Oregon to Empty Death RowOn Friday, May 15, 2020, Oregon Corrections Director Colette Peters announced the state's death row will be closed in summer 2020 and the 27 death row inmates will be moved to the general prison population or other prison housing.The 40-cell space will be converted into a disciplinary unit for inmates who conduct illicit behavior in prison.
Oregon has had a moratorium on the death penalty since 2011, imposed by Governor John Kitzhaber and upheld by his successor Governor Kate Brown. The last execution in the state was on May 16, 1997.
Noelle Crombie, "Oregon's Death Row Will Be Dismantled by Summer," oregonlive.com, May 15, 2020
Noelle Crombie, "Take a Look inside Oregon's Execution Chamber," oregonlive.com, Feb. 4, 2020
June 29, 2020 - Supreme Court Declines to Hear Federal Lethal Injection Protocol ChallengeThe Bureau of Prisons adopted a single drug lethal injection protocol using pentobarbital in order to resume federal executions in July 2020.
The Supreme Court's refusal to hear the case leaves in place a federal appeals court ruling that allows the executions to go forward.
The federal government has not carried out an execution in 17 years.
Adam Liptak, "Federal Executions Can Restart after Supreme Court Declines a Case," nytimes.com, June 29, 2020
Ariane de Vogue and Jamie Ehrlich, "Supreme Court Turns away Challenge to Federal Executions by Lethal Injections," cnn.com, June 29, 2020
July 14, 2020 - First Federal Execution since 2003Daniel Lewis Lee was executed by lethal injection at the federal prison Terre Haute, Indiana, on July 14, 2003. Lee was convicted in 1999 of murdering a family of three in 1996.
The execution came after a 5-4 Supreme Court decision allowed the execution to move forward. Justice Stephen Breyer dissented, stating, "The resumption of federal executions promises to provide examples that illustrate the difficulties of administering the death penalty consistent with the Constitution."
Attorney General William Barr announced the resumption of federal use of the death penalty in July 2019. The federal government had not carried out an execution since 2003. Two more federal executions are scheduled for July 2020 and one more in August 2020.
Ariane de Vogue, Chandelis Duster and David Shortell, "Daniel Lewis Lee Executed after Supreme Court Clears the Way for First Federal Execution in 17 Years," cnn.com, July 14, 2020
Carrie Johnson, "Federal Government Executes 1st Prisoner in 17 Years after Overnight Court Rulings," npr.org, July 14, 2020
Marty Johnson and John Kruzel, "First Federal Prisoner in 17 Years Executed Hours after Supreme Court Decision," thehill.com, July 14, 2020
Aug. 23, 2020 - COVID-19 (Coronavirus) Has Killed More US Prisoners in 2020 than the Death Penalty in Two DecadesAs of the morning of Aug. 23, 2020, 858 prisoners had died of COVID-19 (coronavirus), more than the 839 prisoners executed since 2001.
Douglas A. Berman, "The New Death Penalty: COVID Has Now Killed More US Prisoners in Months Than the US Death Penalty Has in the Last Two Decades," sentencing.typepad.com, Aug. 23, 2020
Sharon Dolovich, "UCLA Law COVID-19 behind Bars Data Project," law.ucla.edu (accessed Aug. 23, 2020
Sep. 24, 2020 - US Executed Man for Crime Committed as Teen for First Time in 70 YearsFor the first time in 70 years, the US federal government executed a man for a crime he committed as a teenager. Christopher Andre Vialva was convicted of murdering two youth ministers in 1999, when Vialva was 19 years old.
Vialva's age at the time of the crime has led some to question whether the sentence was too harsh. Jason Chein, PhD, Professor of Psychology at Temple University, stated, ""Despite the very, very heinous nature of the crime that Christopher has been convicted for, it's my position that based on the science, his brain was not the brain of a fully fledged adult. And that leads me to the conclusion that the punishment of taking one's life is too severe."
The US Supreme Court outlawed executing minors in 2005 as "cruel and unusual punishment." Though Vialva was 19, and therefore not a legal minor, Chein elaborated, "The idea that there's this bright line, this age that you suddenly cross into maturity as you go from 17 to 18, is undermined very much by the evidence from developmental science. There's no moment at which you cross this line, and now you're an adult."
55 federal inmates were on death row as of Sep. 24, 2020.
Death Penalty Information Center, "Psychologist Raises Concerns About Upcoming Federal Execution for Crimes Committed as a Teenager," deathpenaltyinfo.org, Sep. 18, 2020
Harmeet Kaur, "The US Plans to Execute a Man for a Crime He Committed at 19. Scientists Say the Research on Brain Development Makes That Wrong," cnn.com, Sep. 24, 2020
Michael Levenson, "U.S. Executes Inmate Who Murdered Two Youth Ministers," nytimes.com, Sep. 24, 2020
Nov. 27, 2020 - Trump Administration Pushes New Federal Rule to Allow More Methods of ExecutionThe Trump administration published a new rule in the Federal Register on Nov. 27, 2020 (with a date correction issued on Dec. 1) to allow the federal government to use all execution methods allowed by the state in which the federal inmate is being held if lethal injection drugs are not available. For example, of the 28 states that allow the death penalty, at least nine allow electrocution, firing squads, and/or hanging.
The rule is set to go into effect on Dec. 28, 2020.
However, the new rule may be a moot point because President-Elect Joe Biden campaigned against the death penalty.
There are currently 54 people on federal death row, with five inmates scheduled to be executed before Biden's inauguration on Jan. 20, 2021.
Christina Carrega, "DOJ Set to Execute 5 Federal Prisoners before Inauguration Day," cnn.com, Nov. 25, 2020
Christina Carrega, "Justice Department Rushing to Expand Execution Methods Like Firing Squads for Federal Death Row Inmates," cnn.com, Nov. 29, 2020
National Archives, "Manner of Federal Executions: A Rule by the Justice Department on 11/27/2020," federalregister.gov, Nov. 27, 2020
National Archives, "Manner of Federal Executions: A Rule by the Justice Department on 12/01/2020," federalregister.gov, Dec. 1, 2020
Dec. 4, 2020 - COVID-19 (Coronavirus) Has Killed More US Prisoners in 2020 than the Death Penalty in over Five DecadesSince the death penalty was reinstated in 1977, there have been 1527 executions. COVID-19 (coronavirus) deaths overtook executions as of Dec. 4, 2020, when virus deaths totaled at least 1568.
As of December 7, 2020, the Marshall Project counted at least 1,570 COVID-19 deaths among prisoners since Mar. 26, 2020 when the first COVID-19 prisoner death was recorded.
Only seven states have yet to report a COVID-19 prisoner death: Maine, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Wyoming.
As of Dec. 1, 2020 at least 227,333 prisoners had tested positive for COVID-19, with 166,441 prisoners recovering from the virus.
Douglas A. Berman, "The New Death Penalty: COVID Has Now Killed in Nine Months More US Prisoners Than Capital Punishment over Last 50+ Years," sentencing.typepad.com, Dec. 5, 2020
The Marshall Project, "A State-by-State Look at Coronavirus in Prisons," themarshallproject.org, Dec. 8, 2020
Dec. 8, 2020 - Ohio Governor Announces Continued "Unofficial Moratorium" on Death PenaltyOhio Governor Mike DeWine (R) announced that lethal injection is no longer an option in the state because of ongoing problems acquiring the drugs for execution.
Lethal injection has been the only legal method of execution in Ohio since the state reinstated the death penalty in 1999. The last execution in the state was in July 2018.
The ten executions scheduled for 2021 are now postponed unless the legislature approves a new method of execution.
Jeremy Pelzer, "Ohio Will Stop Executions until Lawmakers Pick Alternative to Lethal Injection, Gov. Mike DeWine Says," cleveland.com, Dec. 8, 2020
Dec. 16, 2020 - Number of Federal Executions Surpasses Total State Executions for First Time, as State Executions Hit Historic LowAccording to the Death Penalty Information Center, the year-end number of federal executions of civilians exceeds the total number of people executed by all states for the first time in history.
The federal government resumed the death penalty in July 2020 and has executed 10 people since. The states executed a total of seven people: three by Texas, and one each by Alabama, Georgia, Missouri, and Tennessee.
Due to the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic, state executions reached historic lows. New death sentences were also historically low at just 18 new death sentences country-wide as COVID-19 made trials difficult to hold safely.
Death Penalty Information Center, "The Death Penalty in 2020: Year End Report," deathpenaltyinfo.org, " Dec. 16, 2020
Jan. 13, 2020 - US Federal Government Executed First Woman since 1953Lisa Montgomery, executed on Jan. 13, 2021, was the first woman to be executed by the federal government since the Dec. 18, 1953 execution of Bonnie Brown Heady, according to US Bureau of Prisons records. She was the only woman on federal death row and the eleventh person executed by the Trump administration.
Christina Carrega, "Federal Government Executes the First Woman in Nearly 70 Years," cnn.com, Jan. 13, 2021
Jay Croft, "US Government to Execute First Woman since 1953," cnn.com, Oct. 17, 2020
Jan. 16, 2021 - US Federal Government Executed 13 Inmates under Trump AdministrationOn Jan. 16, 2021, the federal government executed Dustin Higgs, the thirteenth and final prisoner executed under the Trump administration, which carried out the first federal executions since 2003.
Prior to 2020, the federal government had executed three people since 1963, all under President George W. Bush. That group included Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh in 2001.
The prisoners executed during the Trump administration were (date of execution in parentheses):
- Daniel Lee (July 14, 2020)
- Wesley Purkey (July 16, 2020)
- Dustin Honken (July 17, 2020)
- Lezmond Mitchell (Aug. 26, 2020)
- Keith Nelson Aug. 28, 2020)
- William LeCroy Jr. (Sep. 22, 2020)
- Christopher Vialva (Sep. 24, 2020)
- Orlando Hall (Nov. 19, 2020)
- Brandon Bernard (Dec. 10, 2020)
- Alfred Bourgeois (Dec. 11, 2020)
- Lisa Montgomery (Jan. 13, 2021)
- Corey Johnson (Jan. 14, 2021)
- Dustin Higgs (Jan. 16, 2021)
Jonathan Allen, "U.S. to Carry Out 13th and Final Execution under Trump Administration," reuters.com, Jan. 15, 2021
Barbara Campbell, "U.S. Executes Dustin Higgs in 13th and Final Execution under Trump Administration," npr.org, Jan. 16, 2021
Death Penalty Information Center, "Execution Database," deathpenaltyinfo.org (accessed Jan. 18, 2021)
Aris Folley, "Federal Government Carries Out 13th and Final Execution under Trump," thehill.com, Jan. 16, 2021
Mar. 24, 2021 - Virginia Becomes First Southern State to Abolish the Death PenaltyGovernor Ralph Northam signed legislation abolishing the death penalty. The first southern US state to abolish the death penalty, Virginia had, as of Mar. 24, 2021, carried out the most executions in the United States since the country's first execution in Jamestown in 1608.
Whitney Evans, “Virginia Governor Signs Law Abolishing the Death Penalty, a 1st in the South,” npr.org, Mar. 24, 2021
May 14, 2021 - South Carolina Legalizes Electric Chair and Firing Squad Executions if Lethal Drugs Are UnavailableSouth Carolina Governor Henry McMaster (R) signed into law a bill that requires death row inmates to choose between the electric chair and a firing squad if lethal injection is not available as a method of execution.
Lethal injection is the required method of execution if the drugs are available. Obtaining the drugs has been complicated by pharmaceutical companies refusing to sell the drugs to states for executions.
South Carolina last executed a person in May 2010 and the state's supply of lethal injection drugs expired in 2013.
On Sep. 6, 2022, Circuit Court Judge Jocelyn Newman ruled that South Carolina's plan to reinstate the firing squad and electric chair was unconstitutional. She wrote: "In 2021, South Carolina turned back the clock and became the only state in the country in which a person may be forced into the electric chair if he refuses to elect how he will die. In doing so, the General Assembly ignored advances in scientific research and evolving standards of humanity and decency."
South Carolina is expected to appeal the decision.
Joseph Choi, "South Carolina Governor Signs Law Giving Death Row Inmates Choice between Firing Squad or Electric Chair," thehill.com, May 17, 2021
John Monk and Maayan Schechter, "Judge Rules SC’s Firing Squad, Electrocution Execution Methods Are Unconstitutional," the state.com, Sep. 6, 2022
July 1, 2021 - Attorney General Merrick Garland Imposes Moratorium on Federal Death PenaltyAttorney General Merrick Garland, JD, announced the Biden Administration would pause federal executions as the policies and procedures reviewed.
Garland stated, "Serious concerns have been raised about the continued use of the death penalty across the country, including arbitrariness in its application, disparate impact on people of color, and the troubling number of exonerations in capital and other serious cases. Those weighty concerns deserve careful study and evaluation by lawmakers."
President Joe Biden opposes the death penalty.
Alana Wise, "The Justice Department Is Pausing Federal Executions after They Resumed under Trump," npr.org, July 1, 2021
July 22, 2021 - US Department of Justice Withdraws Death Penalty in Seven CasesAs reported by the New York Times on July 22, 2021, the US Justice Department has quietly withdrawn the death penalty in seven cases over the past several months. In each case, prosecutors were directed by the Trump Justice Department to seek the death penalty. Biden Administration Attorney General Merrick Garland has not authorized the death penalty in any federal case since he took office in March 2021.
Benjamin Weiser and Hailey Fuchs, "U.S. Won’t Seek Death Penalty in 7 Cases, Signaling a Shift Under Biden," nytimes.com, July 22, 2021
Jan. 3, 2023 - First Known U.S. Execution of Openly Transgender Person in MissouriOn Jan. 3, 2023, Missouri executed Amber McLaughlin, who was convicted of the 2003 first-degree murder, forcible rape, and armed criminal action against Beverly Guenther. McLaughlin is thought to be the first openly transgender person executed in the United States.
Dakin Andone and Amir Vera, "Missouri Carries Out First Known Execution of an Openly Transgender Person for 2003 Murder," cnn.com, Jan. 3, 2023
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