The death penalty, also known as capital punishment, has existed in most civilizations and cultures. Today, over 70 percent of countries have banned the practice, making the United States an anomaly among its allies.
Brief History of Capital Punishment in America
The first recorded execution in British North America was Captain George Kendell. While the details aren’t precise, Kendell had been labeled a Spanish spy and sentenced to death by firing squad in 1608.
Colonial America doled out capital punishment for even minor offenses, including petty theft, murder of livestock, and trading with indigenous peoples. The most famously unjust executions in early America occurred during the Salem Witch Trials, which resulted in the deaths of 25 people.
By the early 1800s, many states had heavily reduced the number of crimes punishable by death. However, the total number of executions per year steadily rose until it reached a historic high in the 1930s. That decade averaged 167 executions per year.
The next thirty years displayed an evolution of American society’s view of the death penalty. The NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund challenged the use of the death penalty in hundreds of cases in a nationwide campaign.
Support for the practice dropped, and in 1972, the Supreme Court declared capital punishment unconstitutional under the 8th Amendment (cruel and unusual punishment).
This decision was overturned in the 1976 case Gregg v. Georgia, which sentenced Troy Leon Gregg to death for murder. However, each state now needed strict statutes to decide which cases were eligible for the death penalty.
Since then, various reforms have been deciding which people the new laws applied to. There are repeated questions about age, state of mind, and possible innocence.
There’s a clear divide of opinion regarding the death penalty, with roughly half of US states abolishing the practice. Virginia is currently the latest state to abolish capital punishment, making it official in 2021.
What Crimes are Punishable by Death?
In the United States, the death penalty is typically reserved for murder crimes. Among homicides, the murder of a child is an aggravating circumstance that makes it much more likely for a defendant to receive the death penalty.
Some state statutes go past murder when defining a ‘capital crime,’ but only two people are on death row for a non-murder offense. In fact, there hasn’t been a single execution since 1976 that didn’t involve a death.
Historically, the death penalty was often used as a punishment for rape. This precedent was labeled as “grossly disproportionate” in the 1977 Supreme Court case of Coker v. Georgia.
It’s worth noting that the Coker v. Georgia ruling involved the rape of an adult woman. Both inmates on death row for non-murder offenses were convicted of child rape.
Methods of Execution
There have been many discussions and legal revisions over to whom the death penalty should apply. Insane people cannot be executed, nor can anyone who committed a capital crime before turning sixteen.
While the conditions for execution have changed, the Supreme Court has never declared a specific method of execution unconstitutional. In fact, death by firing squad, which was used for Colonial America’s first death penalty, is still a legal form of execution in some states.
The following methods of execution have been used in the US:
- Gas Chamber
- Firing Squad
- Lethal Injection
According to the Supreme Court, none of these procedures are unconstitutional, but that’s likely because most aren’t widely used. Lethal injection is the most adopted execution method in all states where capital punishment is legal. There have been 1377 lethal injection cases nationwide, while the next highest, electrocution, only has 163 cases.
Why Do People Spend So Long on Death Row?
Capital sentences aren’t carried out right away. There are a lot of factors that cause inmates to spend decades on death row. Some advocates against the death penalty have cited the wait time alone as a form of cruel and unusual punishment.
After a capital judgment, there’s a lengthy appeals process that follows. Problems like juror misconduct or new evidence can put off the execution for years.
Additionally, many pharmaceutical companies are uncooperative when providing drugs. The “cocktail” for lethal injection uses three drugs to cause muscle paralysis, respiratory arrest, heart cessation, and sedation. All of these are required to ensure a humane death, and some states face difficulty acquiring them, which causes further delays.
States with the Death Penalty
As of 2022, capital punishment remains legal in 27 states. However, three states have a suspension on all executions.
Despite keeping the death penalty legal, many states have avoided exercising the punishment for decades. New Hampshire’s last execution was in 1939, and Kansas was in 1965. Even North Carolina, ranked 9th in total executions, hasn't carried one out since 2006.
The most cited reason for maintaining the death penalty is deterrence. The philosophy is that the threat of capital punishment is enough to prevent many heinous crimes. There have been many studies over the decades researching this idea’s validity and whether other penalties would provide equal levels of societal deterrence.
The complete list of states with the death penalty includes:
- North Carolina
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
States that Have Banned the Death Penalty
So far, 23 states have abolished the death penalty. The first state to do so was Michigan in 1846, with Rhode Island and Wisconsin quick to follow suit.
The intrinsic irreversibility of the death penalty makes it extremely high-risk. There have been over 150 cases where a death row inmate was later proven innocent. The American Civil Liberties Union reports that for every ten executions, at least one person is exonerated.
Advocates against capital punishment also cite a drain on taxpayer money. Most law enforcement officers don’t believe that the threat of death deters crime. Instead, taxpayer money should focus on controlling drug abuse and creating jobs.
- New Hampshire
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- New York
- North Dakota
- Rhode Island
- West Virginia
States with a Moratorium on the Death Penalty
While still technically legal, three states have placed governor-issued moratoriums on the death penalty. This action doesn’t acquit death row inmates or prevent the courts from sentencing someone to death. The suspension prevents any executions for its term.
The states with moratoriums include:
Capital punishment is a divisive topic in our country. Debates on its ethicality are constant due to the finality of the judgment. As of 2022, capital punishment is still legal in over half of US states.
While some states are abolishing the practice, this change isn’t always permanent. Nevada legally outlawed capital punishment in 2016, only to reinstate it the following year. Only by continuing research can we better understand the societal risks and rewards the death penalty brings.