History of the Death Penalty
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1700s BC - Code of Hammurabi Codifies the Death Penalty for the First Time
Code of Hammurabi (c. 1760 BC)
Source: Kurt, "The Code of Hammurabi," traveltoeat.com, June 30, 2012
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."
Ron Fridell, MA Capital Punishment, 2003
1682 - 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)
Negley K. Teeters, PhD The Cradle of the Penitentiary: The Walnut Jail at Philadelphia, 1773-1885, 1955
Portrait of Cesare Beccaria
Source: www.giovannidallorto.com (accessed Jan. 9, 2010)
Michael Kronenwetter 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."
Michael H. Reggio "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."
Robert Singh, PhD 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.
Joshua Marquis, JD "Truth and Consequences: The Penalty of Death," Debating the Death Penalty: Should America Have Capital Punishment?, 2004
First Federal Congress Project "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."
Turner Publishing Company 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
Portrait of William Bradford, 1872
Source: www.justice.gov (accessed Jan. 7, 2010)
Rebecca Stefoff, MA Furman v. Georgia: Debating the Death Penalty, 2007
1833-1835 - 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)
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."
Michael H. Reggio "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."
Louis P. Masur, PhD 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.
US Department of State "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."
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."
William W. Van Alstyne, JD "The Fourteenth Amendment, the 'Right' to Vote, and the Understanding of the Thirty-Ninth Congress," Supreme Court Review, 1965
[Editor’s Note: See our question “Does the death penalty violate the 14th Amendment?”]
1887-1903 - 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)
[Warning: graphic and potentially emotionally jarring material follows]. A Jan. 4, 1903 video of Thomas Edison electrocuting Topsy the Elephant can be seen here.
Artist's rendering of William Kemmler's execution
Source: www.ccadp.org (accessed Jan. 7, 2010)
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."
Michael H. Reggio 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"
US Supreme Court Room where the Court sat from 1860-1935
Source: www.supremecourt.gov, c. 1900
Larry K. Gaines, PhD and Roger LeRoy Miller, PhD , Criminal Justice in Action, 2008
Interior of a gas death house in Nevada in 1926
The History Channel "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."
Harry Henderson Capital Punishment, Revised Edition, 2000
Aug. 14, 1936 - Last Public Execution
Rainey Bethea in 1936, the last prisoner to be publicly executed
Source: Associated Press
National Public Radio (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)
Geoffrey Abbott Execution, 2006
Willie Francis photographed in his cell the evening of the first attempt to execute him
Source: www.executedtoday.com (accessed Jan. 8, 2010)
Richard Lempert, JD, PhD and Joseph Sanders, JD, PhD, An Invitation to Law and Social Science: Desert, Disputes, and Distribution, 1989
The Rosenbergs on their way from jail to court, 1951
Source: rosenbergtrial.org (accessed Jan. 8, 2010)
British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) "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."
Michael H. Reggio 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."
Brian Forst, PhD, MBA 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
William Furman at the time of his arrest on Aug. 11, 1967
Source: Rebecca Stetoff, Furman V. Georgia: Debating the Death Penalty, 2007
Thomas Blomberg, PhD 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."
Harry Henderson Capital Punishment, Revised Edition, 2000
US Supreme Court
Source: www.supremecourt.gov (accessed Apr. 21, 2010)
Marvin D. Free Jr., PhD 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
Gary Gilmore in court, 1976
Source: www.apsu.edu (accessed Jan. 8, 2010)
Rebecca Stefoff, MA 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."
Paul Finkelman, PhD The Encyclopedia of American Civil Liberties, 2006
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.
British Medical Association 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."
Michael Kronenwetter Capital Punishment: A Reference Handbook, 2001
Dec. 7, 1982 - Texas Performs First Lethal Injection
Illustration of Charles Brooks execution, Dec. 7, 1982
Source: "Charlie Brooks, Jr.," www.clarkprosecutor.org
[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."
TIME Magazine "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
Bryan Vila, PhD 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."
Stuart Kirk, DSW 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
Chief Justice Rose Bird
Source: www.latimes.com (accessed Jan. 8, 2010)
Gordon Morris Bakken, JD, PhD Law in the Western United States, 2000
[Editor’s Note: Read more about the Rose Bird election at Rose Bird ProCon.org]
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] (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."
Brian Forst, PhD, MBA 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."
Raymond Gibbs, PhD 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
Robert Alton Harris
Source: www.cdcr.ca.gov (accessed Jan. 9, 2010)
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 - 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.
CNN (Cable News Network) "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
President Clinton signs the 1994 crime bill
Source: www.gpo.gov (accessed Jan. 9, 2010)
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.
Robert Singh, PhD Governing America: The Politics of a Divided Democracy, 2003
Poster for the film Dead Man Walking, 1996
Source: www.cuadp.org (accessed Jan. 9, 2010)
James J. Megivern, ThD The Death Penalty: An Historical and Theological Survey, 1997
Jan. 25, 1996 - Last Execution by Hanging
James T. Vaughn Correctional Center where Delaware's only gallows stood between 1986 and 2003
Source: www.dpc.delaware.gov (accessed Apr. 26, 2010)
CNN (Cable News Network) "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.
Evan Mandery, JD 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."
American Bar Association (ABA) "Policy History: Death Penalty Moratorium Implementation Project," American Bar Association website (accessed Dec. 21, 2009)
British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) "World: Americas Countdown to US execution," bbc.co.uk, Mar. 4, 1999
Jan. 31, 2000 - Illinois Governor George Ryan Declares a Moratorium on Executions
Governor George Ryan
Source: www.life.com (accessed Jan. 9, 2010)
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.
June 11, 2001 - 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)
British Broadcasting Corporation (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," nytimes.com, 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."
Todd Clear, PhD 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.'"
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)
Robert Regoli, PhD, and John D. Hewitt, PhD, Exploring Criminal Justice, 2007
Dec. 30, 2006 - Execution of Saddam Hussein
Saddam Hussein at his trial, 2005
Source: www.nytimes.com (accessed Jan. 9, 2010)
Forbes.com "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
United Nations General Assembly
Source: www.unmultimedia.org (accessed Apr. 21, 2010)
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)
`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
Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson
Source: www.deathpenalty.org (accessed Jan. 9, 2010)
Associated Press (AP) "New Mexico Governor Abolishes Capital Punishment," ap.org, Mar. 19, 2009
Execution chamber at Southern Ohio Correction Facility in Lucasville where Kenneth Biros was executed
Source: www.cleveland.com (accessed Jan. 9, 2010)
New York Times "Capital Punishment," nytimes.com, Dec. 18, 2009
CNN (Cable News Network) "Death Penalty Use Declining Nationwide," cnn.com, Dec. 18, 2009
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff Announces on Twitter He Had Given Final Approval for Gardner's Execution
Source: www.twitter.com (accessed June 18, 2010)
TIME Magazine "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."
National Public Radio (NPR) "States Delay Executions Owing to Drug Shortage," npr.org, Sep. 16, 2010
CBS News "Teresa Lewis Execution: Virginia Executes Woman Amid Outcry," cbsnews.com, Sep. 24, 2010
Source: www.addictionsearch.com (accessed Jan. 21, 2011)
Los Angeles Times "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."
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 (Cable News Network) "Maryland Governor Signs Death Penalty Repeal," cnn.com, May 2, 2013
Gallup "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.'"
New York Times "Executions Are Suspended by Governor in Washington," by Ian Lovett, nytimes.com, Feb. 11, 2014
Picture of Tennessee Electric Chair at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville, TN.
Source: Scott Neuman, "Tennessee Gov. OKs Allowing Electric Chair for Executions," npr.org, May 22, 2014
Associated Press (AP) “Tennessee Brings Back Electric Chair,” bigstory.ap.org, May 23, 2014
Los Angeles Times "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.]
CNN (Cable News Network) "Pennsylvania Governor Halts Death Penalty While 'Error Prone' System Reviewed," cnn.com, Feb. 14, 2015
CNN (Cable News Network) “Utah to Allow Firing Squads for Executions,” cnn.com, Mar. 23, 2015
Nebraska State Senators Rick Kolowski (left) and Ernie Chambers (right) celebrate the override of the governor's veto.
Source: "Hours of Suspense, Emotion Lead up to a Landmark Vote for Legislatures on Repealing Death Penalty," omaha.com
New York Times "Nebraska Abolishes Death Penalty," nytimes.com, May 27, 2015
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
Reuters "Connecticut's Top Court Bans Death Penalty in State," reuters.com, Aug. 13, 2015
Bloomberg "Florida Death-Sentence System Voided by US Supreme Court," bloomberg.com, Jan. 12, 2016
National Public Radio (NPR) "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.]
New York Times “With Death Penalty Back, Nebraska Looks Ahead to Executions,” nytimes.com, Nov. 9, 2016
New York Times Mitch Smith, "Fentanyl Used to Execute Nebraska Inmate, in a First for US," nytimes.com, Aug. 14, 2018
Associated Press (AP) "Washington Justices Toss Death Penalty as Arbitrary, Unfair," apnews.com, Oct. 11, 2018
Los Angeles Times "Gov. Gavin Newsom to Block California Death Row Executions, Close San Quentin Execution Chamber," latimes.com, Mar. 12, 2019
National Public Radio (NPR) "New Hampshire Abolishes Death Penalty as Lawmakers Override Governor's Veto," npr.org, May 30, 2019
USA Today Kristine Phillips, "Justice Department Resumes Capital Punishment after Nearly Two Decades, Orders Executions of Five Inmates," usatoday, July 25, 2019
- "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
Gallup Jeffrey M. Jones, "Americans Now Support Life in Prison over Death Penalty," gallup.com, Nov. 25, 2019
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."
CNN (Cable News Network) Ariane de Vogue and David Shortell, "Supreme Court Blocks Justice Department from Restarting Federal Executions Next Week," cnn.com, Dec. 6, 2019
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
A 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.
Asher Stockler, "Health Care Workers Ask States to Hand over Death Penalty Drugs Needed to Fight COVID-19 Pandemic," newsweek.com, Apr. 10, 2020
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Whitney Evans, “Virginia Governor Signs Law Abolishing the Death Penalty, a 1st in the South,” npr.org, Mar. 24, 2021
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.
Joseph Choi, "South Carolina Governor Signs Law Giving Death Row Inmates Choice between Firing Squad or Electric Chair," thehill.com, May 17, 2021
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
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
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