History of Death Penalty in the United States

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The United States is among the few western states still partaking in the death penalty.  An approximate of 30 states including the military and the federal government practice capital punishment in the U.S. Some of the most common capital punishments in the U.S include the lethal injection and the electric chair. In some instances, the firing squad was used even though this was not common. Although the period between 1967 and the early 1970's the death punishment was temporarily abolished in the U.S, it was later adopted in the late 1970s. Virginia was the first colonial state in America to practice the death penalty which was supported by others states. However, some states are equally against the death penalty and some like Utah is in a state of dilemma whether to do away with the practice or continues with it. The historic European origins of the death penalty continue to influence and affect the practice in America which struggles amidst abolition, public opinion, the constitution, and humanitarian groups among others.

History of the death penalty

The death penalty dates as far as the 18th century B.C during the reign of King Hammurabi who has codified over 20 different crimes with the death sentence. The Hittite and the Draconian empires which existed in the 14th and 7th empires respectively equally had codified the death penalty. Over the years, the death penalty was conducted in different ways which included, beating till death, drowning, crucifixion and even decapitation among others (Bakken 46). By the 12th century, the Roman empire was equally partaking in the death penalty in case of the violation of the laws on the twelve tablets which were seen as the standard guidelines for law and order.

The death penalty that is practiced in the U.S was as a result of an influence from the British settlers who moved to the U.S after fleeing from religious killings, diseases, and famine in Europe. During the 10th century in Britain, handing was the most common means of execution (Bakken 46). At around 11th century A.D during the reign of William the conquered, the death sentence was abolished temporarily before embarking in the reign of Prince Henry VIII which accounts for over 70,000 deaths in medieval Britain. Over the next few centuries, the death penalties rose in Britain as it is estimated that over 200 crimes were punishable by the death penalty (Kirchmeier 200). The rise of the death penalty further changed the judicial system of Britain as most juries absconded from convicting the defendants in cases where the crimes committed were petty.

Death Penalty in the U.S during the 19th century was heavily influenced by the death penalty practices that came from the British as opposed to the other countries. The first case of capital punishment on the American soil in 1608 was that of George Kendal who was executed in James town Virginia (Kirchmeier 207). Consequently, the Virginian government though Sir Thomas Dale enacted the death sentence as a result of committing various crimes which include stealing petty commodities and refusing to worship the true God. The newly introduced law of the death penalty initially varied from one state to another in the United States (Kirchmeier 210). The Massachusetts Bay Colony, for instance, introduced the death penalty in 1605 while the state of New York did not introduce the law until 1665.

The Abolitionist movement

The abolitionist movement during the colonial times traces its roots to the various European theorists such as Voltaire, Bentham, Montesquieu, and the two English Quakers namely John Bellers and John Howard (Radelet 78). However, one notable influential theorist was Cesare Beccaria who drafted an essay on "Crimes and punishments"that later influenced the entire world. Throughout the essay, Beccaria argued for the stand that the state had no right to take people's lives at will (Radelet 71). Many abolitionists across Europe took an advantage of the essay and renewed their voices and confidence in the fight against the state-imposed death sentences. Beccaria's wave swept across Europe into the American continent. In the U.S for instance, Thomas Jefferson was among the first Americans to join the fight against the state-imposed death penalties.

Thomas Jefferson attempted to revise the law that surrounded the death penalties in Virginia (Radelet 73). The basis of Jefferson's proposal was the capital punishment was to be used for major crimes such as treason and murder. Dr. Benjamin Rush equally supported the fight against the death penalty with the assertion that is only served as a deterrent to the human existence and society. Dr. Rush further instigated the argument which claimed that the death penalty had a "brutalization effect"on the criminals in the sense that it increased their criminal conduct instead of reducing it (Radelet 92). Some of the most influential people who supported Dr. Rush include Benjamin Franklin and general William Bradford who was also Philadelphia's attorney general (Radelet 76). General William Bradford later became the U.S attorney general and used his power to influence the state of Pennsylvania into becoming the first state to consider categorizing murder into degrees of culpability. Bradford's proposal was later put into practice in 1794 when the state of Pennsylvania lifted the death penalty on all offenses with the exception of the first-degree murder.

The death penalty in the 19th century

The period between the early and the mid-19th century in the United States saw the abolitionists of the death penalty gain momentum mostly in the northeastern part of the U.S. As a result, most of the northern states reduced their capital crimes and instead introduced the system of state penitentiaries where offenders were kept (Bakken 46). By the mid-19th century, the state of Pennsylvania made several amendments in terms of the executions that were often carried out in the presence of the public eye and instead started conducting them in the correctional facilities. In 1846, the state of Michigan equally followed suit and took the step of abolishing the death sentence for all crimes that were committed with the exception of treason which was still considered as a sensitive crime. The move was followed by the state of Wisconsin and Rhode Island which completely abolished the death penalties for all crimes committed (Bakken 104). America spearheaded the race for the abolition of the death sentence for all crimes committed by the end of the 19th century and was followed by Portugal, Venezuela, Brazil, Costa Rica and later the Netherlands.

Despite the move of abolishing the death sentence by most of the states in the U.S by the end of the 19th century, most of the states still maintained the capital punishment. However, there was a counter-reaction especially in the southern states such as the state of Mississippi. Most of the southern states later adjusted their crimes to the categories of capital crimes especially when the slaves were involved. In 1838, most of the states strived to make the death sentence more lethal to the public eye through passing laws against mandatory death sentences (Radelet 76). Instead, those states adopted the discretionary death penalty bills. By 1840, the states of Alabama and Tennessee adopted the discretionary death penalty statutes which were viewed as a great advancement towards the abolition of the death penalty at the time. The abolitionists of the death penalty were victorious in their quest as they saw the reduction of the death penalties for all capital crimes as a great step towards abolishing the death penalty in the United States. By the year 1960, most of the mandatory capital punishments had been abolished with the exception of a few other rarely committed crimes (Radelet 86).

The fight for the abolition of the death penalty temporarily subsided during the civil war era as much more attention was given to the anti-slavery movement in the U.S. However, the reconstruction era brought about new ideas and perceptions of the death penalty. An example is the various methods of executions that emerged such as the introduction of the death sentence. By the end of the 19th century, the introduction of the infamous electric chair, for instance, brought about mixed reactions especially in public opinion and the humanitarian groups (Radelet 97).  Most of the states, however quickly adopted the electric chair as their most preferred method of execution for capital offenders.

The Death penalty in the 20th century

The first half of the 20th century in the U.S marked the onset of the progressive period which was characterized by numerous reforms. Furthermore, the period between 1907 and 1917 saw the complete abolition of the death penalty in over 6 states in the United States (Bakken 78). The states that outlawed the death penalty during this duration only left an allowance for the death penalty in certain instances such as treason or the murder of a law enforcement officer. The abolition was temporal as most of the citizens of the U.S felt that a revolution was imminent just like in the case of Russia. Moreover, the United States had just come from the first world war at that time and hence there were serious class clashes between the people from the upper and lower social classes (Radelet 82). The states that had abolished the death penalty acted quickly and reinstated the death penalty for serious offenses.

As a result, the use of the cyanide gas to kill the prosecuted capital offenders was introduced and the first victim was Gee Jon. The period between the between the 1920s and the 1940s further saw the reinstatement of the death penalty across the U.S (Bakken 92). Famous criminologists of the era saw the death penalty as a necessary control measure for the control of law and order in the society. Historically, the great depression era has some of the highest state-sponsored executions as a result of the death penalty. During the 1930's the death penalty in the U.S rose as a result of the numerous prohibitions that were imposed on the people due to the social and economic hardships (Bakken 95).

By the mid-20th century, America's public opinion concerning the death sentence changed as most of the allied nations that surrounded the U.S abolished the death sentence (Kirchmeier 301). Consequently, in the United States, the average number of death sentences as a result of the capital punishment dropped by a great margin. The number of executions due to the death sentence in the United States further dropped from 1289 in the 1940s to only 191 by 1967 (Kirchmeier 290). Later on, as the early 1970s approached the death sentence in the United States lost its grip as the Gallup poll showed that only an estimate of 41% was in favor of the death sentence in the United States.

The year 1972 saw the climax of the suspension of the death penalty in the U.S. A case between Furman v Georgia, Branch V Texas and Jackson V Georgia further highlighted the temporal abolition of the death sentence in the 1970s (Kirchmeier 23). The proponents of the abolition of the death sentence in the 1970s held the opinion that, capital punishment served an illogical and impulsive sentencing. Some additional punishments against the capital punishment in the 1970s were that the death sentence was too cruel and severe for some of the crimes that it was subscribed for (Kirchmeier 69). Additional arguments against the death sentence further state that in the case where the death sentence was too severe for the punishment is went against the code of ethics for punishment in the society.

The court, then declared that Georgia's sentencing statute which gave the jury the power for complete sentencing would result in a form of arbitrary sentencing (Kirchmeier 135). As a result, the court added that the scheme for punishment in that context was cruel and unusual as it violated the 8th amendment. As a result of that ruling, over 629 death sentences that were pending across the country were canceled as the statute was no longer applicable and hence was considered null and void.

Following that ruling, the court further encouraged the states that were affected to correct the ambiguity in their death sentence statutes so as to remove the problems that were highlighted. In response to that request, most of the states that advocated for the death sentence for capital crimes further removed all forms of ambiguity by aligning capital crimes with the death sentence. Additionally, some states further provided guidelines for the judges and the jury's when they were making decisions concerning the death penalty (Kirchmeier 203). The United States' supreme court equally made several reforms surrounding the death sentence and hence the states that wanted to reinstate the death sentence were required to make the amendments in their statutes.  The moratorium that lasted for 10 years ended in 1977 with the killing of Gary Gilmore by the firing squad in Utah. The state of Oklahoma later adopted the lethal injection that year. The lethal injection, however, was not used until 1982 in Texas (Kirchmeier 300).

Although historically, the death sentence came from Britain in Europe, the U.S later adopted the policy in the 17th century from the European immigrants. Some of the initial crimes that were punishable by death include refusing to worship the true God, treason, and murder among others. Some of the most common execution techniques include the lethal injection and the electric chair even though in some instances the firing squad was used. Due to public opinion, the death sentence has been controversial and hence has brought divisiveness and mixed reactions among the federal governments, state government, the general public, and the lobby groups concerned. The death sentence in the U.S was, however, abolished on several instances in the 19th and 20th centuries before being adopted once more in 1977. Although several other countries across the world have abolished the death sentence, the U.S remains the only western state that still partakes in the death sentence.


Bakken, Gordon M. Invitation to an Execution: A History of the Death Penalty in the United States. Albuquerque, N.M: University of New Mexico Press, 2010.

Kirchmeier, Jeffrey L. Imprisoned by the Past: Warren Mccleskey and the American Death Penalty. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. (399)

Radelet, Michael L. The History of the Death Penalty in Colorado. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2017.

November 24, 2023
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