The Death Penalty in America: A Lethal History - Pacific Standard

The Death Penalty in America: A Lethal History

In colonial Virginia, authorities could hang settlers for a crime as small as stealing grapes or killing a neighbor's chicken. The penal code in America's first colony was, in fact, so harsh its governor eventually reduced the number of capital offenses out of fear that settlers would refuse to live there. Since then, the number and severity of crimes punishable by death in the United States have fluctuated; today, the death penalty is still legal in 31 states. Here are some of the critical turning points in the history of capital punishment in America.
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A version of this story originally appeared in the February 2018 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine.

A version of this story originally appeared in the February 2018 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine.

1608

Officials execute Virginia settler George Kendall for treason—the first recorded state-sanctioned death in the American colonies. About five years later, they make execution compulsory for over a dozen crimes.

1776

By the time America gains independence, most colonies have made piracy, murder, sodomy, slave rebellion, burglary, and rape capital crimes.

1785

Thomas Jefferson attempts to reduce the number of capital offenses in Virginia to two. Though the state legislature defeats his measure by a single vote, seven other states would reduce the number of capital offenses by 1815. Simultaneously, some Southern states increase the number of crimes eligible for capital punishment, specifically targeting slaves.

1793

Influenced by Enlightenment thinkers, well-to-do Philadelphia resident Benjamin Rush lobbies the state to abolish capital punishment. He receives the support of William Bradford, Pennsylvania's former attorney general, who publishes an essay arguing that mandatory death sentences actually reduce the likelihood of convicting criminals because juries are hesitant to return a guilty verdict knowing they are sentencing someone to death.

1794

Pennsylvania scraps the death penalty for all crimes but murder "in the first degree." It is the first time a state governing body makes a legal distinction between premeditated and accidental murder.

1846

Michigan becomes the first state to abolish the death penalty (except in cases of treason). Six years later, Rhode Island follows. A botched hanging in Wisconsin, which results in the convict twitching for five minutes at the end of his rope, prompts that state to abolish capital punishment in 1853.

1888

New York dismantles its gallows and builds the country's first electric chair, reportedly prompted by a feud between competing electricity suppliers, the Edison and Westinghouse companies, over the safest way to transmit electricity. In an attempt to prove Westinghouse's method of supplying electricity could harm consumers, Edison employees publicly electrocuted dogs, cats, and—in a particularly gruesome display—an elephant.

1972

In Furman v. Georgia, the Supreme Court rules that capital punishment is cruel and unusual given the discriminatory sentencing guidelines in state penal codes. The decision largely ends capital punishment in the U.S. for a period of three years, during which time state legislatures scramble to circumvent the ruling by rewriting their death penalty laws. In the 1976 case Gregg v. Georgia, the Supreme Court upholds Georgia's new capital-crimes law, effectively restoring the use of the death penalty in the U.S.

2005

The Supreme Court case Roper v. Simmons prohibits states from executing juveniles. Three years later, the landmark case Baze v. Rees upholds the use of lethal injection as a method of execution. Lethal injection is now the primary method of execution in all death penalty states; however, the electric chair is still legal in nine states, the gas chamber in six, and both hanging and firing squad in three.

A version of this story originally appeared in the February 2018 issue of Pacific Standard as a sidebar to "My Brother's Keeper." Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine.

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