History Of The Death Penalty For Law Students



During the colonial era, laws related to the death penalty were primarily influenced by the European system. The practice of capital punishment was brought in by the European settlers who came to the American continent. However, the entire sentiments towards capital punishment have undergone a series of changes throughout history.

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Capital Punishment During the 17th Century

The very 1st execution in recorded history was of Captain George Kendall in the year 1608. He belonged to the Jamestown colony of Virginia and was executed for the crime of being a spy from Spain. Sir Thomas Dale (then Governor of Virginia) enacted Moral, Martial, and Divine Laws for the death penalty for even minor crimes such as killing chickens, trading with Indians, or stealing grapes.

In 1630, the first execution was held in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Similarly, in New York, in 1665, the Duke’s Law was framed for offenses like striking one’s father or mother or denying true God.

Capital Punishment During the 18th Century

In 1767, Cesare Beccaria wrote an essay on death penalty, “On Crime and Punishment,” that primarily influenced thoughts related to punishment across the world. According to him, it wasn’t justified that the state had the right to take a person’s life.

Other challenges to capital punishment laws included the belief that the death penalty wasn’t a real deterrent. Later, when he became the U.S. Attorney General, he repealed the death penalty for all offenses except premeditated murder.

Capital Punishment During the 19th Century

This Century saw more substantial support to the abolitionist movement, particularly in the northeastern part of the country. In the year 1834, Pennsylvania was the 1st state that moved executions away from the public by carrying them at correctional facilities. Michigan, in the year 1846, abolished death penalties for all crimes except treason.

In the USA, although some states started abolishing capital punishment, most states held on to it. The year 1838 saw the enactment of discretionary death penalties in Alabama and Tennessee.

However, the American Civil War saw reduced support to the abolition movement as the focus had shifted towards the anti-slavery movement.

Capital Punishment During the 20th Century

Although some states removed capital punishment by the mid-nineteenth Century, the Progressive Period had already started in the 1st half of the Century. While six states had outlawed the death penalty by 1917, the reforms did not last long.

In 1924, Nevada introduced cyanide gas as a more humane way of execution. Some essays by criminologists arguing for the death penalty led to a fresh revival of use of death penalty as a social measure—an average of 167 executions per year between 1930-40 across the country.

The following decades, however, saw a steep decline in the number of executions and reduced support for Capital Punishment. The number of people in support of capital punishment had come down to 42% by the year 1966, forcing a moratorium being placed by the Supreme Court in 1970. But this was again reversed after four years.

Capital Punishment: Current Laws

Despite upholding the death penalty by the Supreme Court, there has been a consistent effort to restrict its use at only the state and federal levels. For instance, in 2002, the Supreme Court prohibited the death penalty in case of mentally challenged criminals. A law followed this in 2008, which restricted capital punishment in cases where victims did not die. Several states have enacted restrictions on the death penalty, while some have slowed their speed of executions. Some states have even abolished capital punishments and favored life sentences. Some states where the death penalty is legal include Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, etc.

What crimes get the death penalty?

Legally a death penalty is imposed under the USA Federal Government Criminal Justice System. For those wondering what crimes that put you on death row, the list includes espionage, treason, large-scale drug trafficking, attempted murder of witnesses, court office, or juror in different cases.

When did the death penalty become legal in the U.S.?

Capital punishment was reinstated by the Supreme Court in 1976. As of July 2020, 1516 people have been executed, while 170 death row exonerations have taken place.

Why should law students know about death penalty laws?

Law students need to know about death penalty laws to understand how it was meted out. In a law school, reading history and understanding the history behind such laws gives an idea about the basis and why capital punishment exists.

They will have a more robust knowledge after they start their careers in the field of law. Case studies andprojects are some of the most effective means of education concerning the governing laws.

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