First Colonists land in America. The Jamestown colony is established in Virginia, with funds provided by a British import company.
1st person sentenced to death in America. The person was hanged for spying for the Spanish government. He was living in Jamestown colony, the 1st British colony in America (in present day Virginia near Williamsburg).
British Governor of Virginia's Divine, Moral and Martial Laws gave the DP to all sorts of crimes including stealing vegetables and trading with the Indians.

Public hangings seen as a good moral lesson for children and townspeople. A condemned person would be displayed at the gallows, a high wooden platform with beams for a rope and a trap door that would be opened underneath the condemned. Thousands of people would attended hangings and listen to a minister's sermon. It was hoped that the guilty person would find God in his last days and be "pardoned of God, acquitted in the last judgment."

The infamous Scarlet Letter was used in the colonies after the crime of adultery was no longer punished by death. Instead, the guilty would stand at the gallows with a loose noose around their neck for one hour to be shamed for their crime, would be whipped and forced to wear the letter "A" on their clothes for the rest of their life.

Burning at the stake was popular in Medieval England for those convicted of witchcraft and heresy (having religious convictions contrary to the church) but was almost never used in the Colonies. It was on the books for crimes of witchcraft, heresy, slaves who killed masters or incited a revolt, and women who killed their husbands, but even the Salem witches were hanged, not burned.

Pirates would be hung in chains alongside a waterway to serve as a deterrant. The bodies would be left there indefinitely, becoming just skull and bones with a bandanna on top.

late 1700s
Successful abolitionist movement. European philosophers start trend.
The essay On Crime and Punishment starts an abolitionist trend (to abolish the DP). The essay concludes that governments should not have the right to execute its people and that a long punishment (imprisonment) is more of a deterrant than a short one (execution).
War of Independence. The Colonies fight for freedom from British rule.
The Constitution is written.
Thomas Jefferson attempts to change Virginia's death penalty laws so that only murder and treason are punishable by death. His bill, the Bill for Proportioning Crimes and Punishments in Cases Heretofore Capital, is defeated by one vote.
The Bill of Rights is written (the 1st 10 Amendments to the Constitution). The 8th Amendment will apply to the DP debate: no "cruel and unusual punishment" allowed.
DP in Pennsylvania ended except for 1st degree murder. 1st degree murder is either a premeditated murder or a murder committed at the same time as a felony (robbery, rape, arson, burglary). The Quakers opposed the DP.
late 1700s
The 1st prisons are built. Before this time, only jails existed to hold those waiting for trial or waiting for their death by hanging, whipping or other sentence to be carried out. No criminals were held long term until the idea of reforming them came into vogue.
1st American abolitionist, activist working to end the death penalty. A friend of Ben Franklin's who wrote a pamphlet titled "Considerations on the Injustice and Impolicy of Punishing Murder by Death." Here's a quote from the pamphlet, still relevant today: "The punishment of murder by death is contrary to reason, and to the order and happiness of society, and contrary to divine revelation."
Northern states abolish DP for crimes other than murder and treason while Southern states don't. The South still has separate, more punitive laws for slaves and thieves to keep the larger underclass from causing problems.
NY and Pennsylvania stop public executions. Instead of executing criminals in the town square, it's moved behind prison walls.
Tennessee ends mandatory death sentences. Now the jury can choose life in prison instead. Alabama follows suit.
Michigan ends the Death Penalty for all crimes except treason (fighting against your own country), becoming the first state to do so.
Wisconsin ends the DP for all crimes.
Civil War.
Illinois is 1st state to give juries the option of choosing prison time instead of execution for the crime of murder.
The 14th Amendment is added to the Constitution. It will become a focus in future DP debates: the accused have the right to "due process" within the court system.
Most popular execution method changes from hanging to the electric chair. It's thought to be a more humane way of executing.
Successful abolitionist movement. American culture in the "Progressive Period."
World War I.
Criminologists begin arguing that the DP is needed to keep society together. During the 1930s, the US executes the highest number of people in its history, about 170 people a year. The upheavals of WWI and WWII, and the Great Depression spark violent social change.
The gas chamber becomes a popular execution method. It's seen as a more humane alternative to the electric chair. Currently, lethal injection is deemed the most humane method and almost all executions are by lethal injection.
The Great Depression.
World War II.
The U.N. writes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It gives everyone the right to life.
Most of Europe abolishes the DP. Support for the DP reaches an all-time low in America. Only 40 per cent of Americans support the DP in a 1966 poll. The number of executions per year drops drastically, never reaching over 100 until after the DP is re-instated. Appeals become more commonplace, and the time spent on Death Row reaches from 6 months to 2 years.
Supreme Court interprets the 8th Amendment's "cruel and unusual punishment" through the "evolving standard of decency that marks the progress of a maturing society" while reviewing Trop v. Dulles. This takes into account the change of what is deemed a humane execution. Originally it was hanging, then the electric chair, then the gas chamber and now lethal injection. It's hoped that the "evolving standards of decency" will one day prohibit excecutions as "cruel and unusual punishment."
Vietnam War. America finds a new spirit of activism and embraces social change.
Lawyers begin to attack the constitutionality of the DP. At issue are whether it violates the right to "due process" or "equal protection under the law," or is "cruel and unusual punishment."
DP suspended by the US Supreme Court. Supreme Court rules that constitutional problems with the DP must be resolved before executions can continue. 600 Death Row inmates had their death sentences reduced to life in prison. All states were told by the Supreme Court to rewrite their DP laws.
Jurors can no longer be dismissed because they oppose the DP. The Supreme Court rules this unconstitutional in a review of Witherspoon v. Illinois. To bounce an anti-DP juror, prosecutors must now show the juror cannot make an impartial decision towards life or death because of their beliefs.

Furman v. Georgia Court Case (the Supreme Court reviewed this case and also included the similar cases Gregg v. Georgia, Jurek v. Texas and Proffitt v. Florida)
The US Supreme Court found the DP laws to be unconstitutional. The laws were deemed cruel and unusual punishment which is in violation of the 8th Amendment of our Constitution: "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted." The Supreme Court felt allowing a jury to decide sentencing could yield arbitrary results which would not be fair to the defendant and amount to "cruel and unusual punishment." To counteract this, states wrote new laws providing sentencing guidelines to the jury and to the judge. "Aggravating" and "mitigating" circumstances were added to crimes to help the juries and judges decide who should get the DP. The DP laws were also found to violate the 14th Amendment, the right to due process. Supreme Court justices believed defendants should not be sentenced to death immediately, during the same deliberations that found them guilty, but should get a separate sentencing phase. The Supreme Court also started the practice of allowing a death sentence an automatic appeal. This helps the state's maintain a fair standard of death sentences by reviewing each DP case in the state's appellate courts.

Woodson v. North Carolina Court Case
The US Supreme Court decided DP should not be automatically imposed on certain crimes such as murder; no mandatory death sentences.
Roberts v. Louisiana Court Case
The US Supreme Court makes the same decision; no mandatory death sentences.
Woodson v. North Carolina Court Case
The US Supreme Court decided DP should not be automatically imposed on certain crimes such as murder; no mandatory death sentences.
Coker v. Georgia Court Case
The US Supreme Court did not allow DP to be given for rape of a 16-year-old girl, implying that only murder should qualify for the DP.
Supreme Court decides the new DP laws are OK and executions resume.
Utah man Gary Gilmore the first to be executed. Shot by a firing squad for killing a hotel manager in Provo, UT. Gilmore had his eye corneas salvaged for transplants and thus provided sight through his death. About 1,000 people have been executed since.
The mentally insane can no longer be executed.
Ford v. Wainwright.
The introduction of new evidence of innocence is not enough for a Federal court to grant a new trial.
The case on appeal must include constitutional grounds for needing a new trial; meaning the defendant's constitutional rights were not met in the first trial. Decision made in review of Herrera v. Collins.
Pope John Paul II visits the US and prays for an end to the DP.
Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act.
Changed the appeals process, making it much harder for Death Row inmates to get a wrongful conviction overturned. No longer allows more than one federal appeal unless a 3-judge panel agrees that the state court acted "unreasonably." "Effective Death Penalty" refers to shortening the time between conviction and execution by lessening the number of appeals a prisoner can make (currently, the average time spent on Death Row is 10 years, partly due to waiting for the prisoner's appeals to progress through the court system).
The U.N.'s Human Rights group supports a worldwide moratorium on executions.
President Yeltsin of Russia commutes all death sentences.
Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act known as "The Crime Bill."
Added 60 federal crimes that can receive the DP. Also added $10 billion for new prisons, 100,000 new cops, 3 Strikes rule (3rd felony conviction results in life in prison) and drugs conviscated without a warrant can be used in court if a warrant could have legally been obtained.
Atkins v. Virginia Court Case
The US Supreme Court decides the mentally retarded can not be held fully responsible for murders they committ. States can no longer execute the mentally retarded. It's deemed "cruel and unusual punishment" in violation of the 8th Amendment.
Governor of Illinois, George Ryan, commutes all death sentences after 13 people on Death Row are found to be innocent and are freed. He places a moratorium on all future executions in IL.
NY abolishes its DP. The state's high court finds it unconstitutional.

Why America has the Death Penalty:
our current laws allow it.
The laws of America can be changed!
upcoming exes
crimes with DP
how executions
who death row
egregious cases
how courts
famous activists
anti death books