The history of death penalty in the United States of America

Subject: Law
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Word count: 3236
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Capital Punishment in the United States has been a controversial statute in the states that execute capital offenders to death. The main reason that the defenders of capital punishment in the US have been that capital punishment helps in deterring crime occurrences. However, from the comparison of various data on states that practice death penalty and those that do not, on numbers of offenders executed to death and crime occurrences, it’s impossible to associate death penalty with crime reduction. The study will provide a literature review on the history of capital punishment in the United States from the colonial period to the present time. The research investigates the possibility of the death penalty to reduce criminal activities by comparing the statistics on the numbers of capital offenders executed and the prevalence or deterrence of crimes in the regions that practice capital punishment. The dependent and independent variables will be defined and established.


Death penalty or capital punishment is the execution of an offender to death following the conviction by a court. The due process of the law takes the course and determines the judgment of an offender. In this case, the judicial process resolves to the conclusion to execute the offender. The history of capital punishment traces back to 18th century B.C. in the Kingdom of Babylon, where King Hammurabi ordered death penalty in 25 different instances. There were a series of capital punishment in various kingdoms such as the Roman Empire, Athens, and Hittite among others. The British practiced death penalty from the beginning of the 15th century. It was the British which introduced capital punishment in the United States after the European settlers settled in America. From its early execution, the death penalty was believed to reduce crime occurrences. The capital punishment practice has had different impacts regarding deterrence to crime in various states in the United States (Michigan State University and Death Penalty Information Center, 2006). The research examines the possibility of death penalty deterring crimes through the comparison of the available statistics on capital punishment and crime occurrences. The study would use the statistics on the number of executions and that of the crimes reported to the judicial system and compare them to get the correlation between death penalty executions and deterrence to crimes.

Research Hypothesis

Capital punishment does not deter occurrences of crimes.


The capital punishment was first effected in an early 17th century in Virginia when Captain George Kendall was executed for being a spy for the Spanish. According to the website on Death Penalty Information Center (2018), the governor of Virginia Sir Thomas Dale enacted the Divine, Moral and Martial Laws. The Divine, Moral and Martial laws classified and considered minor offenses such as trading with the Indians, killing a chicken, and stealing grapes as crimes that were accorded capital punishment when found guilty of violating.  From the different colonies in America varied from one another. The British colonies executed the death penalty laws at various times. The laws that attracted capital punishment in these regions include, but not limited to: denying the “true God” and striking one’s parents (father or mother).

The Early Capital Punishment Laws

After the first establishment of death penalty execution in the Code of King Hammurabi of Babylon in the 18th century B.C., the British made part of the early history of death penalty executions in 10th century A.D. During this period, the British mainly executed death through hanging. However, a century later, William the emperor illegalized the hanging of people for any crime except during wars. The rule did not however last as by the wake of 16th century A.D, during the reign of Henry VIII when more than 72,000 people were executed to death. During the period, the emperor used boiling, hanging, beheading, burning, quartering and drowning were employed as the methods of execution to death. According to the British Empire at the time, marrying a Jew, treason and failing to confess to a crime were considered as capital offenses and called for execution.

As the years went by, the number of crimes punishable by death increased to 222 crimes. At the beginning of 17th till the end of 18th centuries, the number of executions increased as the number of crimes punishable by death increased significantly. Some of the crimes that the British Empire considered to be capital offenses include; cutting down of trees, robbery of a rabbit warren and stealing. With the inclusivity of even minor crimes as capital offenses, most of the juries realized the need to sentence one when the case was not severe enough to warrant execution. From the opinions of most of the juries and other stakeholders, the British were compelled to amend the provisions of the death penalty laws.  In 1823, the death penalty laws were changed, and over 100 crimes out of the 222 previously described by the judge were removed from the list of capital offenses.

Over the years, the death penalty laws have changed and selectively applied. Regardless of the perceived intention and objective of capital punishment; to reduce crimes, the first opposing voices were first heard immediately after the first execution in America. According to Maher (2003), in early 18th Century, colonial Britain made the first death penalty execution in America. During this time, most of the world’s governments used capital punishment to suppress their oppositions and criminals who perpetrated crimes they classified as capital offenses. However, in the present times, most of those governments have abolished the death penalty (Michigan State University and Death Penalty Information Center, 2006). The United States is one of the few countries where the death penalty is still practiced. The US governments and citizens always support and protect capital punishment regardless of the ineffectiveness of the laws. Almost, more than half of the total states in the USA back the executions of death penalty laws.

In keeping with Sarisky (2015), throughout the colonial period in the US, figuring out a person’s guilt was carried out via trials. Those trials, to the modern-day, appeared to have nothing to do with guilt or innocence (Sarisky, 2015). In most of the instances, it was a political game, social oppression and racial profiling that certain individuals were subjected to capital execution. The process was so abnormal in that instead of having judges pay attention to statistics and determine, the accused turned into assigned a task to carry out and whose outcome at the end would either exonerate or implicate him (Peffley & Hurwitz, 2007). An example of the assignments which the accused were appointed to carry out included protecting a hot rod of iron after which having the fingers bandaged for three days. After three days, if the individual’s hand became infected, then that particular person would be deemed guilty of the subject offense. In the situation that two events or persons had a dispute but did not have a specific witness, the trial will be using fighting. The fight was mainly based on the vision that God would lead the harmless man or woman to victory over the responsible person.

Death Penalty in the United States

From the article by Welty (2012), capital punishment has been a part of North Carolina statues since the times when it was a British colony. The British first executed a Native American man by hanging in 1726 (Welty, 2012). During the Colonial times in America, most of the American States were subjected to capital punishment laws following the influence of the British. During this time, the death penalty was used to execute an array of crimes. Some of the crimes that an offender would be killed include burglary, arson, rape, and murder alongside petty crimes. Adcock (2012) reveals that the practice of executing capital offenders continued until the second half of the 20th century when most of the petty crimes considered as capital offenses were scrapped out (Adcock, 2012). Most of the states faced constitutional and legal opposition to death penalty laws and most of them ended up abolishing death penalty laws. From the period that the colonialists carried out the death penalty, the execution was carried out by statehood, local officials, and during the civil war.

During the 19th century, many people in Europe and America began to oppose the death penalty. In the US, Michigan abolished it in 1845 and Wisconsin joining those opposing the capital punishment laws in 1848. The states that opposed death penalty laws scrapped every bit of capital punishment laws from their statutes. The movement against the death penalty grew stronger after World War II, especially in Europe, where many were wary of so much killing during the war. In a series, all the Western European nations and Canada did away with capital punishment, until the United States was the last Western democracy that still executed criminals (Maher, 2003). Approximately seventeen American states, mainly found in the Midwest and Northeast, have banned executions. Surprisingly, New York, which had banned the death penalty for over 30 years, reinstated it in 1995. However, the New York Court of Appeals’ ruling struck down the law in 2004. The New York’s state legislature has declined the opportunity to draft and formulate a new death penalty law the. Consequent to the states which banned capital punishment, New Jersey, New Mexico, Illinois, and Connecticut followed suit in 2007, 2009, 2011 and 2012 respectively.

Over the years, racial prejudice has culminated the sociopolitical atmospheres of the American states. The death penalty laws’ were no exception to these prejudices. The criminal justice systems in the US have been infected with the racial discriminations and profiling of the minority races (Peffley & Hurwitz, 2007). From the books of history, it’s clear that the capital punishment laws were excessively imposed on blacks. The racial mentality of the Whites, who are the majority of the American populations affected the understanding and judgment of black suspects or offenders (Baldus, Woodworth & Pulaski, 1990). The Blacks were understood to be suspects of rape and burglary, and this contributed to the disproportional consideration of the death penalty executions on the Blacks. After vigorous campaigns and civil rights movements against the selective application of the capital punishment laws on the minority races such as the Blacks, a significant change took place in 1910. During this time the government assumed the mandate for executions with the intention to make them more consistent and benevolent.

According to Dieter (2014), in a bid to make the executions more humane, the government introduced execution by use of the electric chair (Dieter, 2014). The electric chair worked in a way that the perpetrators were placed, tied and then the electricity switched on. The electric charges flow through the body causing shock and faster death. Walter Morrison was the first man to be executed on state electric chair in the Central Prison. After the first execution on the electric chair, different states emulated the act, and after 1910, the electric chair was the preferred mode of execution (Adcock, 2012). With the states that still execute capital offenders, electric chair remains the constitutionally recognized means of execution.

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According to Jeff Welty (2012), the case Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S, where the Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty was arbitrary and violated the Eighth Amendment, was another breakthrough that led to the abolishment of capital punishment in most of the states (Welty, 2012). According to this ruling, the decision to impose the death penalty was left to the jury to decide. After the verdict, it was clear that all the laws of the death penalty in the US were to be scrapped and that only the judge handling the particular case was mandated to call for capital punishment. Furman efficiently annulled all the capital punishment laws across the region.

Even though the impact of the ruling in Furman v. Georgia, 408 US, was positive towards a reduction in death penalty execution, in North Carolina, it contributed to the decision in State v. Waddell, 282 N.C. 431 (1973) that increased the number of capital offenders (Welty, 2012).The court’s decision in the case reasoned that if the Supreme Court’s decision in Furman v. Georgia, 408, US, that a discretionary death penalty was unconstitutional, then the laws authorizing capital punishment for rape, murder, burglary, and arson were to be interpreted as compulsory. After this decision, the number of inmates on death row increased significantly. At that time, North Carolina had the most substantial number of death row inmates in the entire USA. However, the law was challenged and struck down in Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U.S. 280 (1976) (Welty, 2012). According to this case’s ruling, the death penalty was to be imposed only after consideration of particular defendant, their character and crimes committed.

As one of the states that still legalize death penalty, North Carolina, has an updated and advanced version of the death penalty laws in the US.  Some of the significant rulings in the US that influenced the death penalty laws included Enmund v. Florida, 458 US. 782 (1982), which prohibited the imposition of capital punishment on individual offenders, McKoy v. North Carolina, 494 U.S. 433 (1990) that invalidated the North Carolina’s rule that mitigating circumstances must be unanimously found to be considered by a judge (Welty, 2012). The course of capital punishment laws have changed over time, and presently most of the states impose the death penalty on offenders in rare cases. In 2001, the General assembly modified the death penalty laws even further.  Most recently, in Roper v. Simmons, 543 US 551 (2005), the Supreme Court made a decision that juveniles were ineligible for capital punishment (Dieter, 2014). In 2010, the General Assembly enacted the Racial Justice Act 2010, which intended to remove all racial prejudices and discrimination in the imposition of death penalty.


Variables and Experiment

a). Independent variables: Death Penalty laws.

b). Dependent Variables: Crime occurrences

In this research, death penalty statutes are independent variables as the occurrences of crimes are perceived to depend on the existence of such laws. However, crimes happen in every state with or without the death penalty statutes. Compare the statistics of capital crimes such as burglary, rape, arson, homicide and murder in states with death penalty with the statistics of similar criminal activities in states without the death penalty. The data on illegal activities are compared alongside the existence of capital punishment statutes in the different states. In the states with death penalty statutes, the research examines the data on executions made year after year and comparing the data on executions in two ensuing years.

Analysis of the Statistics on Death Penalty executions and Capital Crime Occurrences

The death penalty was introduced to deter crimes. However, different states in the US have different facts about the significance of death penalty to prevent crimes. As some states record high reduction in crime occurrences due death penalty executions, others have realized an increase in the number of crimes. Comparing the statistics on the death penalty in the US would help in determining the role of capital punishment in crime reduction, the data would be of immense help.

Table 1: Data of Death Penalty Executions from 1976 to 2018

Year Number of Death Penalty Cases
1976 0
1977 1
1978 0
1979 2
1980 0
1981 1
1982 2
1983 5
1984 21
1985 18
1986 18
1987 25
1988 11
1989 16
1990 23
1991 14
1992 31
1993 38
1994 31
1995 56
1996 45
1997 74
1998 68
1999 98
2000 85
2001 66
2002 71
2003 65
2004 59
2005 60
2006 53
2007 42
2008 37
2009 52
2010 46
2011 43
2012 43
2013 39
2014 35
2015 28
2016 20
2017 23
2018 7

Source: (DPIC, 2018).

From the table, it is clear that the number of executions either increased or decreased without any designed pattern. The numbers of death penalty executions in specific instances increased even after executing many perpetrators in the past. For example, in 1998. A total of 68 offenders were executed to death, while the following year, 98 people were found culpable of capital offenses. According to this statistics, 30 more people violated the constitutional provisions and common law in capital offenses. Between 2001 and 2002, the number of capital offenders increased with 5, regardless of the high number of perpetrators executed in the previous year. There is no correlation between capital punishment execution and crime occurrences.

According to the research by Lamperti, Marshall & Nixon (2004), the cases of murder have been more common in states with death penalty laws than in those without these statutes. The statistics from the period between 1973 and 1984 indicate that the cases of murder were common in states with capital punishment laws (Lamperti, Marshall, & Nixon, 2004). In situations where the death penalty has been considered to reduce and deter homicide, the high numbers of incarceration in prisons have led to homicide among prisoners. From the outside, it seems to be working that death penalty laws reduce crimes such as homicide, while the same rules cannot reduce or deter homicide among the prisoners. From the previous research, it is clear that over 90% of all prisoner homicides in the United States occur in states with capital punishment (Potter, 1997). By comparing the statistics from various research on the matter of capital punishment, it’s clear from the inconsistent correlation that capital punishment does not deter crime occurrences.

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Research Implications

The comparison of data on death penalty executions and crime occurrences is quite complicated as other external factors come into play. The issues that influence the statistics include the differential poverty index in various states, crime culture, economic challenges and racial prejudices. The research also faced the challenge to expressly link certain crimes to the death penalty as they happen in every state but in those states with the death penalty, they contribute to the hypothesis that capital punishment does not deter crimes.


  • The criminal justice systems should scrap out all the racial prejudices in death penalty cases.
  • The states which have capital punishment as part of their statutes should humanely apply and practice the death penalty.
  • All the states with death penalty should have commonly identified and defined specific crimes to be considered as capital offenses.


The history of death penalty traces back to the times of King Hammurabi of Babylon in 18th century B.C. The practice of death penalty travels down to Britain in 10th century A.D. which embraced the law to punish to death those who perpetrated the capital offenses. From Britain, the history of capital offenses in America began after the British colonies in American were compelled to abide by the laws of the British. In the United States of America, different states practiced death penalty to various degrees and defined the rules variedly across the years even after gaining independence from the British. The history of capital punishment in the US is rich and reflects on the crime rates over time. One of the ideologies supporting the death penalty is that it deters criminals from perpetrating crimes. However, by comparing the statistics of crimes in death penalty states, it is apparent that capital punishment does not prevent crimes. The experiment examined the data on crimes and death penalty executions and provided an overview of crime rates in states without a death penalty to conclude that death penalty does not deter crimes.

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  1. Adcock, T.(2012). A History of the Death Penalty in America. In Cornell Law Forum (Vol. 36).
  2. Baldus, D. C., Woodworth, G., & Pulaski, C. A. (1990). Equal justice and the death penalty: A legal and empirical analysis. Upne.
  3. Dieter, R. C. (2014). The future of the death penalty in the United States. U. Rich. L. Rev.49, 921.
  4. DPIC. (2018). Death Penalty Information Center: Facts about Death Penalty.
  5. Lamperti, J., Marshall, J., & Nixon, R. M. (2004). Does Capital Punishment Deter Murder?
  6. Maher, R. M. (2003). The Death Penalty and Reform in the United States.
  7. Michigan State University and Death Penalty Information Center. (2006). The Death Penalty: History.
  8. Ogletree Jr, C. J. (2002). Black man’s burden: Race and the death penalty in America. Or. L. Rev.81, 15.
  9. Peffley, M., & Hurwitz, J. (2007). Persuasion and Resistance: Race and the death penalty in America. American Journal of Political Science51(4), 996-1012.
  10. Potter, G. (1997). Crime control and the death penalty. The Advocate19, 1-4.
  11. Sarisky, K. (2015). History and Controversies of Capital Punishment.
  12. Welty, J. (2012). The death penalty in North Carolina: History and overview. Chapel Hill, NC: UNC School of Government. Retrieved:
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