History of Capital Punishment
In Great Britain, at one time, along with treason, rape, piracy, arson, and murder, witchcraft and shoplifting were crimes that were punishable by death.
The British penal system was used when the first recorded execution in the American Colonies under the control of the English was implemented in Jamestown, Virginia in 1608 for the crime of treason. It was a public execution as was the case both under English rule and under the laws of the post-revolutionary government until the 1830s.
The first small change of the law by an individual colony took place in 1682 in what was known as "The Great Law or Body of Laws" which was instituted by William Penn in the colony of Pennsylvania. One of the changes to the laws that were followed by all thirteen colonies at that time was that crimes punishable by death in Pennsylvania were limited to treason and murder.
Nonetheless, during the American Revolution, all thirteen colonies had death penalty laws for several different crimes. The preferred method of execution was hanging.
The Constitution, written in 1787 allowed the death penalty for both the federal government and the individual new states. Benjamin Rush, a civic leader also from the state of Pennsylvania who attended the Continental Congress and was one of the original signers of the Constitution was the only opponent of note to the death penalty. He was influenced by Italian Jurist Cesare Beccaria who published an essay in 1764 on "Crimes and Punishment". The paper was the first time abolition of capital punishment was brought up in Europe. To date, many argue that it remains the most prominent attack on the death penalty ever circulated. Rush, by his opposition to the law has been acknowledged as the political forbearer of the penalty's abolitionist movement. Rush served as Surgeon General in the Continental army and was appointed Treasurer of the U.S. Mint in 1797. He was also an outspoken critic of slavery.
In 1790 the first United States Congress established the first federal death penalty as a law of a new nation and the first execution took place in June of that year in Massachusetts. More than a century later, in 1932 the Lindbergh Act made kidnapping a federal capital offense.
From the early 1830s through 1849 fifteen states discontinued public executions. The debate questioning whether the death penalty was an effective and legal option for punishment had begun. In 1849 the American Society for the Abolition of Capital Punishment was created. Proponents of capital punishment contended that life imprisonment could never deter as effectively as the threat of being put to death while opponents of the death penalty argued that life in prison served as a powerful enough deterrent.
In 1846, Michigan became the first state to outlaw the death penalty except in cases of treason and in 1852 Rhode Island became the first state to outlaw it for all criminal charges.
The ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution in 1868 extended protections to the states and the phrasing within it which stated " No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." assisted those who opposed the death penalty with a legal basis to utilize the Amendment in cases heard by the Supreme Court.
Between 1895 and 1917 nine more states abolished capital punishment for most crimes (in some states the crime of rape was the exception) and between 1957 and 1972 several more states abolished it as the debate raged on about its constitutionality and effectiveness.
In 1972, in the case of Furman v. Georgia, the Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional as administered and in 2005 the Court heard the case of Roper v. Simmons ruling the death penalty unconstitutional for offenders who were under the age of eighteen. However, the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 in the case of Gregg v. Georgia. To read a full listing of all U. S. Supreme Court decisions on capital punishment, click here: Source Wikipedia.
*Since then, the total number of states that abolished capital punishment had grown to eighteen until yesterday during the construction of this Web page.
Nebraska has become the nineteenth state to abolish the death penalty (May 27, 2015).
The bill which originally passed the legislature by a vote of 32-15 was vetoed by the Governor but legislators overrode his veto of the bill by a final tally of 30-19 repealing the state's death penalty law by one vote.
The significance of the outcome is that Nebraska is known as a deeply red state politically and it was the first time in more than four decades that a conservative state abolished a death penalty law, since North Dakota did so in 1973. The sentiment of recent polling has shown that support for the abolishment of capital punishment has been gaining favor over recent years.
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