The history of the death penalty in the USA may be traced back
to colonial times in the 1600’s. It is claimed that the first
recorded death sentence and execution by firing squad was carried
out in the British colony of Jamestown, Virginia in 1608.
It was in 1794 that Pennsylvania, the first state to consider
degrees of murder, repealed the Death Penalty for all offenses
except first degree murder.
During the early part of the nineteenth century, the move to
abolish the Death Penalty was seen in many states as a result of
the “Jacksonian era,” which condemned the use of the gallows and
proclaimed a more humane treatment of criminals.
A Progressive Period of reform took place during the first half
of the Twentieth Century. Between 1907 and 1917, six states
outlawed the death penalty, and three others limited it to crimes
of treason and first degree murder of law enforcement officials.
This reform was short- lived.
During the late 60’s and 70’s, many court cases were brought
before the Supreme Court which focused on the role of the jury and
its discretion, recommendations, reservations or impartiality to
the death penalty,for example, U.S. v. Jackson (1968), Witherspoon
v. Illinois (1968).
The famous Furman v. Georgia (1972) court cases set the
standard for many years to come in the USA.The Supreme Court
concluded that giving the jury total discretion when deciding on
the death penalty for murder was “cruel and unusual” punishment and
in violation of the Eighth Amendment, especially if it did not fit
Although the execution of juveniles under the age of sixteen
was considered unconstitutional in some states, restrictions still
existed. In states lacking a minimum age limit in its death penalty
statute, juveniles under the age of sixteen at the time the crime
was committed could still be executed. In 1989, the Supreme Court
maintained that the Eighth Amendment did not prohibit capital
punishment for crimes committed by sixteen year olds.
The Court’s majority recommended that those who could prove
their innocence seek executive clemency from the governor of the
state. Nevertheless, seeking clemency was somewhat prohibited when
the appeals process was changed due to the Anti-Terrorism and
Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. It became much more difficult
for Death Row inmates to get a conviction overturned.