History of Executions

Criminal Justice Degree Guide: History of Executions in America Before Lethal Injection

Here is a look at the history of executions before lethal injection in America.  This will give you a good background on capital punishments back in the early days and how it affects the justice system today.  Please refer to our valuable resources in other areas of criminal justice as you continue your research and studies.

Capital Punishment in the U.S.

The first lethal injection in the U.S. occurred on December 7, 1982. Since then over 1,000 death row inmates in the U.S. have been executed by this method. As of 2011, lethal injection was the primary method of execution in all of the 37 states that allow the death penalty. Recently, the State of Nebraska had required electrocution, until the 2008 state Supreme Court ruling that the method was unconstitutional. Other states still allow electricity, firing squads, hanging and lethal gas as secondary methods of execution. Before lethal injection, there were 14,490 recorded executions that occurred over the course of U.S. history, by various methods. From the first execution, in 1607, to the present day, the issue of capital punishment in the U.S. has been a subject of divisive controversy.

1607-1800: Colonial Times and Early America

The first recorded execution in colonial America was in 1607 in the Jamestown colony, the execution of Captain George Kendall for the crime of espionage. In 1612, the Divine, Moral and Martial Laws, were enacted in Virginia. Under these laws, many minor offenses, including killing chickens and trading with Native Americans, were punishable by death. The first execution in the Massachusetts Bay Colony was in 1630. Provisions for capital punishment were instituted in New England in subsequent years. In 1632, Jane Champion was put to death, the first female execution in the colonies. The colony of New York enacted the Duke’s Laws in 1665. These laws called for the death penalty in the case of such offenses as striking one’s parent or denying the Judeo-Christian God.  All in all, only 34% of the 191 documented executions in the colonies were for murder between 1607 and 1708. This demonstrates both the general acceptance of strict punishment, and the lack of regulation and consistency with regards to punishment in the early stages of development in America. Methods for execution throughout this period included: hanging, burning, pressing, gibbeting, bludgeoning, being “broken on the wheel,” hung in chains or shot.

In 1767, the Italian philosopher Cesare Beccaria published his essay, On Crimes and Punishment, which greatly influenced an ideological change in the colonies, with respect to the death penalty. Beccaria argued that there was no justifiable reason for the state to take of a life. The first attempt at reforms of capital punishment in the U.S. came from Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson introduced a bill that proposed that capital punishment in Virginia be called for only in the case of murder or treason. Also influenced was Philadelphia Attorney General William Bradford. Bradford led Pennsylvania in becoming the first state to recognize different degrees of murder. In 1794, Pennsylvania made first-degree murder the only crime punishable by death in the state.

1800-1900: The Narrowing of Capital Punishment

In the early part of the nineteenth century, several states reduced the number of crimes they considered capital offenses. This time period was also marked, in many states, by the introduction of state correctional facilities. However, some states expanded their definition of capital crimes, especially states with a high concentration of slave owners, with regard to slave-committed offenses. Lynching was common as a form of execution used on slaves. In 1838, many states began passing laws against mandatory death sentencing. This was in response to a public desire for discretionary death penalty statutes. Before these discretionary statutes, all states mandated the death penalty for anyone who committed the offense of a capital crime. In 1846, Michigan became the first state to abolish the death penalty, to be followed by Wisconsin in 1853 and Maine in 1887. During the Civil War, as the anti-slavery movement gained momentum, the issue of capital punishment lost attention, until the introduction of the electric chair in 1888.

1900-1981: The Ebb and Flow of Abolition

From 1907 to 1917, also known as the Progressive Period, six states abolished the death penalty and three limited it to a few rarely committed crimes. However, by the end of World War I, in 1918, five of the six states reinstated the use of capital punishment. In 1924, cyanide gas was introduced as an execution method in Nevada. In the 1930’s, there were roughly 1,670 executions in the U.S., more than in any other decade in American history. Over subsequent decades, the number of U.S. executions declined again, following worldwide trends against capital punishment, especially in the Allied Countries of World War II. There were 1,289 executions in the 1940s, 715 in the 1950s and only 191 from 1960 to 1976. Besides a few rarely committed crimes in some jurisdictions, most all mandatory capital punishment laws were repealed by 1963. The issue of arbitrariness of the death penalty was brought before the Supreme Court in 1972 in Furman v. Georgia. In June of 1972, the Supreme Court ruled 40 death penalty statutes to be unconstitutional and void, as result of this case. Capital punishment was suspended for this time period, as there were no longer any valid state statutes with provisions for the death penalty. Shortly after, 35 states advocating the death penalty rewrote their death penalty statutes to remove this arbitrariness in accordance with the Furman decision. Some states went so far as to remove all jury discretion by mandating capital punishment offenders that committed capital crimes. However, the Supreme Court held this practice unconstitutional in Woodson v. North Carolina. In 1982, lethal injection was introduced as a method of execution. From 1976 to February of 2011 there were 1,242 total executions under these statutes, 1,068 by lethal injection, 157 by electrocution, 11 by gas chamber, 3 by hanging, and 3 by firing squad.

2011: Present Day Issues

Presently, many developed countries and international organizations oppose the use of the death penalty. Opponents of capital punishment in the U.S., such as Amnesty International, argue that any mistake in the process of lethal injection can cause excruciating pain to the inmate, warranting “cruel and unusual punishment,” protected against by the 8th Amendment. Many healthcare and professional organizations also consider the participation of healthcare professionals in execution to be in violation of their code of ethics. The American Medical Association states that “a physician, as a member of a profession dedicated to preserving life when there is hope of doing so, should not be a participant in a legally authorized execution.” The American Nurses Association mirrors the sentiment, offering the official position that “The American Nurses Association (ANA) is strongly opposed to nurse participation in capital punishment. Participation in executions is viewed as contrary to the fundamental goals and ethical traditions of the profession.” Despite these vehement oppositions, the law of many states requires the participation of state-employed healthcare professionals.  In January of 2011, the only U.S. manufacturer of the anesthetic used by most states in order to execute prisoners, stopped production of the drug. On February 10, 2011, a Swiss-based drug company halted production of a generic version of the anesthetic, announcing that it would forbid its distributors from exporting the drug to the U.S.

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