History of Death Penalty in the United States

History of Death Penalty in the United States.

Executions in the 1700’s and 1800’s were public events. The hangings were the largest gatherings in America. During these days, death would come swiftly after the conviction. Any delay after the conviction was simply the time required for the sheriff to build the gallows.

“Until the nineteenth century, hangings were conducted outdoors, often before thousands of spectators, as part of the larger ritual including a procession to the gallows, as sermon, and a speech by the condemned prisoner. Hangings were not macabre spectacles staged for a bloodthristy crown. A hanging was normally a somber event, like a church service.” Banner (2003)

Over time, repentance assumed a more important role in the journey to the gallows. It became common place to have a period of days or weeks to allow the condemned to visit with preachers, admit guilt and ask for the communities forgiveness. Eventually, religion would play a much smaller role in the execution process. Ironically, today many religious groups now call for the abolition of capital punishment, including the Catholic Church.

History of Death Penalty in the United States

By the early 1800’s, states were beginning to abolish the death penalty for many crimes. Prior to this time, the death penalty was a punishment for a great number of crimes including; burglary, robbery, arson, sodomy, bestiality, blasphemy, adultery, incest, murder, attempted murder, poaching deer, stealing small sums of money, smuggling tobacco, third conviction for theft. As some states moved away from the death penalty for many crimes, in the south, the death penalty remained for crimes committed by slaves or free blacks.

In the 1900’s there have been repeated attempts to abolish the death penalty, both nationally and by individual states. There are entire books dedicated to describing the detailed history of the death penalty and attempts to abolish it. If I were to provide a highly over-simplified look at the course of abolition in America, it might look something like this;

1) The Supreme Court tried to abolish the death penalty, but it was reversed.

2) Some governors tried to abolish the death penalty, but it was reversed.

3) Some states tried to abolish the death penalty by ballot measures, but it was reversed.

Recall in the first paragraph of this article, I stated that the death penalty was brought over from England, which has subsequently abolished the death penalty. Because of the way the government and laws are structured in England, the British Parliament abolished capital punishment through law, even though the majority of the population approved of it.

In the US, more than half of Americans approved of the death penalty, and every time someone would attempt to abolish it, one of the legal avenues available in our legal system was utilized to reverse the decision. Legislatures overruled ballot measures, attorneys would use the courts to over-ride decisions made by governors, etc.

Today, the federal government does not prohibit the death penalty for adults and about half the states allow the use of the death penalty (Links to an external site.).

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