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Capital Punishment: Morality, Politics, and Policy

The Death Penalty In America, 1793–1982

During the seventeenth century, the criminal justice systems in the American colonies took their main features from the mother country. A mandatory hanging carried out in public after conviction in a jury trial was the widely used punishment for murder and other traditional felonies (arson, rape, robbery, burglary). In the new nation, the first significant step toward reform of the death penalty was taken in Pennsylvania in 1793, when the legislature created "degrees" of murder and confined the death penalty to offenders convicted of murder in the "firstdegree"—willful, deliberate, and premeditated murder and felony murder (any homicide committed in the course of arson, rape, robbery, and burglary). By the middle of the nineteenth century many states had adopted this reform as a more precise conception of what ought to count as criminal homicide deserving the death penalty.

During the nineteenth century, state legislatures from Maine to Pennsylvania regularly received petitions from religious groups, notably the Society of Friends (Quakers), in favor of complete abolition. During this period two important further reforms were initiated. One ended public executions, thus confining the hangman and his necessary but sordid duties to the relative privacy of the prison yard. (Debauchery among the onlookers at public executions was widely regarded in this country and in England as a disgrace that needlessly fueled demands for abolition.) The other reform abandoned the mandatory death sentence upon a conviction of a capital felony in favor of giving the trial jury the power to choose between a death sentence and "mercy," in the form of a long prison term. A third trend—statutory abolition of all death penalties—advanced, stumbled, and by the Civil War vanished. Nevertheless, between 1847 (when Michigan abolished the death penalty for murder, though not for treason) and 1887 (when Maine abolished the death penalty), several states experimented with complete abolition.

With the advent of the Progressive Era, nine states across the nation, from Tennessee to Washington, repealed all their capital statutes; all but two (Minnesota and North Dakota) restored it within a few years, as public reaction to the experiment in most states brought it to an end. Execution by lethal gas chamber was first used in Nevada in 1923 and within a few years was adopted in many other states as a method superior in its humanity both to hanging and to electrocution.

During the Depression and World War II, agitation for abolition in the state legislatures came to a virtual halt. In 1958 the first prominent interest in evaluating and abolishing the death penalty occurred in Delaware, when the legislature (under the influence of local political leadership and the pathbreaking Report of the Royal Commission on Capital Punishment in England in 1953) repealed all that state's death penalty statutes. Influenced by the example of Delaware, several other states in the 1960s debated whether to abolish the death penalty; abolition efforts were successful in Vermont, West Virginia, and Iowa. No doubt the highpoint of the mid-century abolition movement occurred in 1964 in Oregon, when in a popular referendum the public voted to repeal the state constitutional provision for the death penalty.

Beginning in 1967, a new strategy to abolish the death penalty nationwide began to unfold, directed by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) in New York. Mindful of the way in which African American defendants were especially vulnerable to the death penalty, and the way the administration of the death penalty was both highly discriminatory and in general arbitrarily imposed, the LDF decided to attack it nationwide, not in the legislatures but in the federal courts, and on federal constitutional grounds. LDF attorneys argued that the evidence showed the death penalty in the United States violated "equal protection of the laws" and "due process of law," and that it was a "cruel and unusual punishment"—not in this or that case, not just in the South as part of the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, but uniformly and generally across the nation. This strategy, inspired by the Civil Rights movement of the early 1960s, led to a moratorium on executions (though not on death sentences) as the Supreme Court debated the constitutional status of the death penalty.

In 1972, the Court held that the death penalty was unconstitutional as administered, because of its arbitrary and discriminatory application (Furman v. Georgia). Many state legislatures promptly revised and reenacted their death penalty statutes, hoping they would pass constitutional muster. Four years later the Court held that several varieties of these new capital statutes had indeed cured the problems of the prior statutes and that, in any case, the death penalty as such was not unconstitutional; more precisely, the death penalty did not violate the constitutional prohibition against "cruel and unusual punishment" (Gregg v. Georgia). In 1977, after the moratorium had lasted nearly a decade, executions resumed, first in Utah and then across the nation. During this period a new method of execution found increasing favor across the land: death by lethal injection. First adopted, in Oklahoma, in 1977, lethal injection was first used in Texas in 1982.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawCapital Punishment: Morality, Politics, and Policy - The Death Penalty In America, 1793–1982, Current Status, Capital Crimes, Public Opinion, Administration