capital punishment Death Penalty Facts That Might Surprise You  

Mike Rothschild
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The death penalty debate in the United States is a heated and emotional one, often relying on passions over figures. However, a number of death penalty facts aren't well known to the public - and they reveal a disturbing history. Death penalty pros and cons can be outweighed by the arbitrary application of capital punishment, the numerous restrictions that have been put on it, its cost, and the fact that it might not actually deter crime.

Colonial settlers brought over England's death penalty tradition, and while the UK abolished the death penalty in 1965, the United States still routinely practices it. However, the laws on capital punishment vary widely by state, with some states having the legal right to execute offenders, and others abolishing it. In the 18th and 19th century, the US had an almost arbitrary policy, with black men executed by the state for offenses that a white criminal would only be imprisoned for. Slaves, Native Americans, and minors were routinely executed - often in public. And offenders were often given next to no legal council.

Here are facts about the death penalty and some interesting death penalty statistics that cast its history and application in a sobering light.

The Death Penalty Has Existed in America Since the 1600s


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The first recorded execution in the colonies was of Captain George Kendall in Jamestown in 1608. Kendall was accused of being a spy for Spain, and was executed by a firing squad. Four years later, Virginia's governor implemented what he called the Divine, Moral, and Martial Laws. These allowed for the death penalty for minor offenses ranging from stealing grapes to trading with Indians. The Laws were repealed soon after, for fear that people wouldn't settle in Virginia.

The first criminal executed in the Americas was also in Virginia, in 1622.

Other Crimes Besides Murder Have Been Given the Death Penalty


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There are over 50 crimes currently punishable by the death penalty in the US, including rape, robbery, and high-level drug trafficking. However, no executions for crimes other than murder have taken place in the US since 1964, when a man was electrocuted for robbery. Prior to that, black men in the South were routinely executed for rape, and executions took place for everything from assault to kidnapping to espionage.

The US Has Carried Out Multiple Mass Executions


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While their time has long since passed, mass executions were once a part of the American justice system. The largest single execution in United States history was the hanging of 38 Santee Sioux convicted of murder and rape during the Dakota War of 1862 - an incident where 300 were originally slated to be hanged, and all but 38 had their sentences commuted by President Lincoln.

In 1917, 13 African American soldiers were simultaneously hanged for taking part in the Houston Riot. Before US independence, 26 convicted pirates were hanged in Newport, RI, in 1723.

The Death Penalty Was Suspended in the US for Nearly a Decade


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From 1967 until 1976, the death penalty was effectively illegal thanks to a Supreme Court ruling. In 1972, the case of Furman v. Georgia found the Supreme Court ruling on three consolidated cases challenging the constitutionality of capital punishment. The court ruled 5-4 that the death penalty, as applied inconsistently and seemingly at random, violated the 8th and 14th Amendments.

In the years that followed, 37 states passed new, clearer death penalty laws - and the Furman case was voided by the Court's ruling on another case four years later. Executions started again soon after.