History of the Death Penalty & Recent Developments The first known execution in the territory now known as the United States of America was of Captain George Kendall, who was shot by a firing squad in Jamestown in December 1607 (other sources say sometime in 1608), accused of sowing discord and mutiny (some sources say he was also accused of spying against the British for Spain). The next known execution, allso in the Colony of Virginia, was of Daniel Frank, put to death in 1622 for the crime of theft. Since then the death penalty has almost always been a feature of the criminal justice system, first in the American colonies and then, after independence, in the U.S. This page focuses on the history of the death penalty in the U.S. beginning in 1930, when death penalty statistics first began to be collected on a regular basis. It provideslinks to numerous important U.S. Supreme Court decisions on capital punishment,documents on recent developments in the status of the death penalty nationally, and otherhistorical resources on the death penalty in the U.S. and elsewhere.Disclaimer: The Justice Center is not responsible for the content of any outside site linked here, nor does a listing hereimply an endorsement of a sites opinions or content or a guarantee of its accuracy. For further information about thissite, including answers to questions by students, see the FAQ.The Death Penalty in the U.S.A brief history of the death penalty in the U.S. since 1930, when death penalty statisticsbegan to be collected on a regular basis. This history emphasize death penalty statistics andthe constitutional history of the death penalty and is based primarily on the annual capitalpunishment bulletins of the Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice. Forfurther information, see the Death Penalty Information Centers History of the DeathPenalty.1930-1967 From 1930, the first year for which statistics are readily available from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, to 1967, 3,859 persons were executed under civil (that is, nonmilitary) jurisdiction in the United States. During thisperiod of
nearly half a century, over half (54%) of those executed were black, 45 percent were white, and the remaning one percent were members of other racial groups -- American Indians (a total of 19 executed from 1930-1967), Filipino (13), Chinese (8), and Japanese (2). The vast majority of those executed were men; 32 women were executed from 1930 to 1967. Three out of five executions during that period took place in thesouthern U.S. The state of Georgia had the highest number of executions during the period,totaling 366 -- more than nine percent of the national total. Texas followed with 297 executions;New York with 329; California with 292; and North Caroline with 263. Most executions -- 3,334of 3,859 -- were for the crime of murder; 455 prisoners (12%) -- ninety percent of them black --were executed for rape; 70 prisoners were executed for other offenses. During the same period, the U.S. Army (including the Air Force) executed 160 persons,including 106 executions for murder (including 21 involving rape), 53 for rape, and one fordesertion. (The execution for desertion was the subject of the 1974 movie "The Execution ofPrivate Slovik.") The U.S. Navy has executed no one since 1849.Moratorium on executions By the end of the 1960s, all but 10 states had laws authorizing capital punishment, but strong pressure byforces opposed to the death penalty resulted in an unofficial moratorium on executions forseveral years, with the last execution during this period taking place in 1967. Prior to this, anaverage of 130 executions per year occurred.Furman invalidates most Legal challenges to the death penalty culminated in a 5-4death penalty laws U.S. Supreme Court decision Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 153 (1972), which struck down federal and statecapital punishment laws permitting wide discretion in the application of the death penalty.Characterizing these laws as "arbitrary and capricious," the majority ruled that they constitutedcruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and
the due process guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment. Only two of the justices concurring inthe decision (Justices Brennan and Marshall) declared capital punishment to be unconstitutionalin all instances, however; other concurrences by Justices Douglas, Stewart, and White focused onthe abitrariness of the application of capital punishment, including the appearance of racial biasagainst black defendants. In all, nine separate opinions -- five invalidating existing laws and fourarguing for their retention -- were written by the nine Supreme Court justices spelling out theirdifferent views on what constituted the "cruel and unusual punishment" prohibited by the EighthAmendment.New laws upheld More than 600 death row inmates who had been sentenced to death between 1967 and 1972 had their death sentences lifted as a result ofFurman, but the numbers quickly began to build up again as states enacted revised legislationtailored to satisfy the Supreme Courts objections to arbitrary imposition of death sentences.These laws were of two major types: The first type, providing for guided discretion, was upheld by the Supreme Court in threerelated cases: Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976), Jurek v. Texas, 428 U.S. 262 (1976), andProffitt v. Florida, 428 U.S. 242 (1976). The Georgia, Texas, and Florida statutes validated bythe Supreme Court afforded sentencing courts the discretion to impose death sentences forspecified crimes and provided for two-stage, or "bifurcated," trials, involving in the first stage thedetermination of a defendants guilt or innocence and, in the second, determination of thesentence after consideration of aggravating and mitigating circumstances. In Georgia and Texas,the final sentencing decision rested with the jury, and in Florida with the judge. Those laws which provided a mandatory death penalty for specific crimes, and allowing nojudicial or jury discretion beyond the determination of guilt, were declared unconstitutional inWoodson v. North Carolina, 428 U.S. 280 (1976) and Roberts v. Louisiana, 428 U.S. 325 (1976).These rulings led directly to the invalidation of mandatory death penalty statutes in 21 states, andresulted in the modification of the sentences of hundreds of offenders from death to lifeimprisonment.Executions resume
The first execution under the new death penaltylaws took place on January 17, 1977, whenconvicted murdered Gary Gilmore was executedby firing squad in Utah. Gilmores was the firstexecution in the United States since 1967. Twoprisoners were executed in 1979; one in 1981; twoin 1982; and five in 1983. Executions increaseddramatically in 1984, with 21 in that year, andthere have been at least 10 executions in the U.S.every year since. There were 74 executions in1997. From 1977 to 1997, a total of 432executions took place. Of the executed prisonersduring this period, 266 were white, 161 wereblack, and five were of other races. By the end of1997, 38 states and the federal government hadcapital punishment law; 12 states (includingAlaska) have no death penalty. (Bureau of JusticeStatistics annual bulletins on capital punishmentprovide current information on U.S. jurisdictionswhich authorize the death penalty.) By the end of1996, 3,219 prisoners were under sentence ofdeath, including 3,208 in 34 states and 11 underfederal jurisdiction. All were convicted of murder.Supreme Court In 1977, thedecisions refine Supreme Courtdeath penalty laws declared in Coker v. Georgia, 433 U.S.584 (1977) that applying the death penalty in rape cases was unconstitutional because thesentence was disproportionate to the crime. Coker resulted in the removal of twenty inmates --three whites and 17 blacks -- awaiting execution on rape convictions from death rows around thecountry. In Lockett v. Ohio, 438 U.S. 586 (1978), the high court forced a number of states to againrevise their death penalty statutes by ruling that the sentencing authority in a capital case mustconsider every possible mitigating factor to the crime rather than limiting, as Ohio had, themitigating factors that could be considered to a specific list. For additional Supreme Courtdecisions, see Selected Supreme Court Decisions, below.Current Status Since the 1976 Gregg decision upholding the constitutionality of Georgias death penalty law, numerous states have reinstated capitalpunishment in their statutes. The most recent state to enact a death penalty law was New York in1995. As of January 1998, 38 states and the federal government have capital punishment laws in
effect. Alaska, eleven other states -- Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota,North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin -- and the District ofColumbia do not have a death penalty. Sites providing information on the current status of thedeath penalty throughout the nation are available on the Death Penalty Statistics page.Selected U.S. Supreme Court DecisionsSee also the collection of historic capital punishment decisions from the Legal InformationInstitute at Cornell University. LII also provides death penalty cases since 1990 and U.S.Death Penalty Law Materials. Other resources on the Supreme Court are available throughthe Justice Centers Legal Research: U.S. Supreme Court and Courts & Judicial Process: U.S.Supreme Court links pages.Determining the Constitutionality of the Death Penalty Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972): Death penalty under current statutes is "abitrary and capricious" and therefore unconstitutional under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Oral arguments to the case are available online (using RealAudio) from Oyez Oyez Oyez. Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976): Reinstates the death penalty under a model of guided discretion. See also Jurek v. Texas 428 U.S. 262 (1976) and Proffitt v. Florida 428 U.S. 242 (1976).Refining Death Penalty Laws Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U.S. 280 (1976): Mandatory death penalty laws declared unconstitutional. See also Roberts v. Louisiana, 428 U.S. 325 (1976). Coker v. Georgia, 433 U.S. 584 (1977): Death penalty for the rape of adult women declared unconstitutional because the sentence was disproportionate to the crime. Twenty prisoners from around the country were removed from death row as a consequence of this decision. Lockett v. Ohio, 438 U.S. 586 (1978): Sentencing authorities must have the discretion to consider every possible mitigating factor, rather than being limited to a specific list of factors to consider. This decision resulted in the release of 99 prisoners from Ohios death row. See also Bell v. Ohio, 438 U.S. 637 (1978). Godfrey v. Georgia, 446 U.S. 420 (1980): Sent back for retrial several cases on grounds of too broad and vague an application of the provision stipulating the death penalty if the offense was "outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible, or inhumane, in that it involved torture, depravity of mind, or an aggravated battery to the victim." The ruling did not affect the statute itself, but the court held that the relevant facts in Godfrey were not substantially different from other cases in which the provision was not applied. Beck v. Alabama, 447 U.S. 625 (1980): Struck a portion of Alabamas death penalty law that blocked juries from convicting defendants of an included lesser offense rather than the capital crime itself; juries were required to either convict a defendant of the capital crime or to acquit him. Adams v. Texas, 448 U.S. 38 (1980): Prospective jurors cannot be excluded from service
in capital trials because they would be "affected" by the possibility of a capital sentence. Hopper v. Evans, 456 U.S. 605 (1982): Upheld the death sentence of a defendant convicted under the Alabama statute partially struck down in Beck v. Alabama. The court held that, since a lesser offense was not an issue, the laws failure to allow for it did not prejudice the case; i.e., the conviction of a capital prisoner tried under a partially flawed statute need not be reversed unless it was actually touched by the imperfection. Evans was executed on April 22, 1983. Enmund v. Florida, 458 U.S. 782 (1982): Struck down the death sentence of a defendant who had not intended, attempted, or actually killed the victim of a robbery in which he was an accomplice. Pulley v. Harris, 465 U.S. 37 (1984): Upheld the death penalty in a California case, holding that there was no constitutional requirement for a proportionality review -- that is, a review of sentences in comparable cases throughout a state to deterimine if similar cases are handled in a similar way -- though many state death penalty law provide for such a review. Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 399 (1986): Held that is is unconstitutional to execute a person who is insane. McCleskey v. Kemp, 481 U.S. 279 (1987): Rejected the claim that death penalty sentencing in Georgia was administered in a racially biased manner in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, despite statistical data on capital sentences in Georgia to which showed that black defendants convicted of killing white victims were more likely to be given the death sentence than other defendants. (See also Specific Issues: Racial Disparities.) Thompson v. Oklahoma, 487 U.S. 815 (1988): Ruled that youths younger than 16 years old at the time of their offense cannot be constitutionally executed. (See also Specific Issues: Juveniles.) Penry v. Lynaugh, 492 U.S. 302 (1989): Ruled that it is not categorically unconstitutional to execute a mentally retarded person found guilty of capital murder. Some states have enacted laws specifically excluding capital sentencing for persons determined to be mentally retarded. (See also Specific Issues: Mentally Retarded Persons.) Stanford v. Kentucky, 492 U.S. 361 (1989): Reaffirmed the courts opinion that it was not unconstitutional to execute youths at least 16 years old at the time of committing a capital offense. A number of states define minimum ages authorized for capital punishment. (See also Specific Issues: Juveniles.)Recent Developments & Future of the Death PenaltyInformation on the current status of the death penalty in the U.S. is available from anumber of sites listed on the Death Penalty Statistics page. In addition, the sites belowmonitor and issue reports on changes in the death penalty in the U.S.Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary ExecutionsThe Special Rapporteur is mandated by the U.N. Commission for Human Rights to addressinstances of executions that violate international standards regarding human rights and theright to life. See also The International Context: Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial,Summary, or Arbitrary Executions. The country reports listed below are excerpted from
annual reports of the Special Rapporteur; complete citation information and links to thecomplete reports are provided on the individual pages. Country Report for the United States of America, 1992 Country Report for the United States of America, 1993 Country Report for the United States of America, 1994 Country Report for the United States of America, 1995 Country Report for the United States of America, 1996 Country Report for the United States of America, 1997 Country Report for the United States of America, 1998 1997 Mission to the United States of America: The Special Rapporteur, Mr. Bacre Waly Ndiaye, conducted a mission to the U.S. from 28 September to 8 October 1997. This is his report on the mission and its findings. During his mission, Mr. Ndiaye visited Washington, DC, and the states of New York, Florida, Texas, and California, and met with federal, state, and prison officials; death row inmates; capital defense attorneys; victims families; experts on death penalty issues; and others concerned with the death penalty. Of particular concern to the Special Rapporteur were reports of discriminatory and arbitrary use of the death penalty; lack of adequate defense during trial and appeal procedures; execution of persons who were juveniles at the time of offense and mentally retarded persons; extension of the scope of the death penalty; and deaths in custody and deaths due to use of lethal force by law enforcement officials. Recommendations are included in the report. Call for a moratorium on executions in the U.S.: Press release, April 3, 1998.Amnesty InternationalAmnesty International is a well-known international human rights organization based inLondon and issues annual reports on human rights issues throughout the world. Itadvocates for the abolition of the death penalty, and has an ongoing anti-death penaltycampaign. United States of America: Developments on the Death Penalty During 1993: London: Amnesty International, 1994. Open Letter to the President on the Death Penalty: Letter to President Bill Clinton from Pierre Sané, Secretary General. London: Amnesty International, January 1994. In an open letter to President Bill Clinton, Amnesty International called on the U.S. Government to recognized its responsibility for ensuring equal protection of the law to all U.S. citizens by establishing a presidential commission on the death penalty and to establish a moratorium on executions until the commission reported its findings. "Amnesty International Urges Presidential Commission on Death Penalty": London: Amnesty International, 1994. United States of America: Developments on the Death Penalty During 1994: London: Amnesty International, 1995. "United States of America: Followup on Amnesty Internationals Open Letter to the President on the Death Penalty": London: Amnesty International, 1995. By the end of 1994, no substantive response to the January 1994 open letter had been received and new legislation widening the scope of the death penalty in the U.S. had been enacted. "United States of America: Possible Reinstatement of the Death Penalty in New York":
London: Amnesty International, 1995. "United States of America: Reinstatement of the Death Penalty in New York": London: Amnesty International, May 1995. Governor George E. Pataki signed a bill reinstating the death penalty in New York on 7 March 1995, making it the 38th state in the U.S. to have a death penalty. United States of America: Developments on the Death Penalty During 1995: London: Amnesty International, February 1996. United States of America: Death Penalty Developments in 1996: London: Amnesty International, March 1997. Amnesty International: Publications on the United States of AmericaDeath Penalty Information Center (DPIC)DPIC is a non-profit organization providing analysis and information on issues concerningcapital punishment. It advocates abolition of the death penalty. History of the Death Penalty Whats New: Brief news items on the death penalty. The Death Penalty in 1998: Year End Report: Washington, DC: Death Penalty Information Center, December 1998. The Death Penalty in 1997: Year End Report: Washington, DC: Death Penalty Information Center, December 1997. Of particular note was the number of executions in Texas: 37 executions in 1997 as opposed to 3 executions in Texas in 1996. Also reports on national public opinion polls. 1996 Year End Report: A Summary of Important Events in the Death Penalty in the Past Year: Washington, DC: Death Penalty Information Center, December 1996. Federal Death Penalty: Basic information on federal death penalty statutes enacted since Furman and statistics. Public Opinion About the Death Penalty: Results of recent public opinion polls. Twenty Years of Capital Punishment: A Re-evaluation: by Richard C. Dieter. Washington, DC: Washington, DC: Death Penalty Information Center, June 1996. This review of the death penalty from an abolitionist viewpoint addresses issues such as racial disparities and other inequities, executions of juveniles, cost of capital cases, politicization of the issue, the risk of executing the innocent, and international developments. The Future of the Death Penalty in the U.S.: A Texas-Sized Crisis: By Richard C. Dieter. Washington, DC: Washington, DC: Death Penalty Information Center, 1994. Texas is the leader in the use of the death penalty in the U.S. Analysis of Texas experience from an abolitionist viewpoint is a jumping-off point for discussing the implications to the nation as a whole of the possibility of official misconduct in death penalty cases, racism, and inequities in legal representation.Historical ResourcesOther resources on the history of the death penalty in the U.S. and in other nations.
Torture and death penalty instruments: From the Middle Ages to the Industrial Era: Online version of an exhibition held from 1983 to 1986 in various European cities. Through Mexicos Conseja Nacional para Cultura y las Artes.United States The Execution of Caleb Adams: This site chronicles the life, crime, trial, and execution by hanging of Caleb Adams, a nineteen-year-old convicted in 1803 of murdering a six-year- old boy. "Dirty Details: Executing U.S. Soldiers During World War II": by J. Robert Lilly. 28 November 1995; earlier draft presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology, Boston, November, 1995. Part of a long-term examination of the execution of U.S. soldiers during World War II, this paper describes the crimes, defendants, and victims for 18 military executions that took place in England, 1943-1945. "Executing U.S. Soldiers in England, WWII: The Power of Command Influence and Sexual Racism": by J. Robert Lilly and J. Michael Thompson. 31 August 1995. The Visiting Forces Act of 1942 permitted the American military during World War II to use capital punishment in England as an extension of discipline. The authors argue that the acts purpose was to control a perceived danger: the socializing of African American troops with British females, and the possible explosive violence between Caucasian and African American troops.England Tyburn Tree: Public Executions in Early Modern England: Each of the three horizontal beams of Tyburn "Tree," in London, could hang up to eight people at once. The links page has links to other sites about executions in English cities. Tower of London Virtual Tour: "Founded nearly a millennium ago and expanded upon over the centuries since, the Tower of London has protected, housed, imprisoned and been for many the last sight they saw on Earth. It has been the seat of British government and the living quarters of monarchs...the site of renown political intrigue, and the repository of the Crown Jewels.... It has housed lions, bears, and (to this day) flightless ravens...not to mention notorious traitors and framed members of court, lords and ministers, clergymen and knights." Capital Punishment in Modern British Law and Culture: by T.P. Uschanov. Circa 1994. Provides a history of the death penalty and its abolition in the United Kingdom under the 1965 Murder Act, with a discussion of recent attempt to reintroduce the death penalty in Britain.