• Unspeakable Times

Death Penalty Facts That Might Surprise You

The death penalty debate in the United States is a heated and emotional one, often relying on passions over figures. However, a number of related facts aren't well known to the public - and they reveal a disturbing history. Many factors can outweigh the pros and cons: 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 future offenders.

Colonial settlers brought over England's capital punishment tradition, and while the UK abolished the practice in 1965, the United States still routinely enacts it. However, the individual state laws on capital punishment vary widely, 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 offender 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 counsel.

Here are facts about capital punishment and some interesting statistics that cast its history and application in a sobering light.

  • Capital Punishment Has Existed in America Since the 1600s

    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 terminated via a firing squad. Four years later, Virginia's governor implemented what he called the Divine, Moral, and Martial Laws. These allowed judicial executions 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 The Laws were repealed soon after, for fear that people wouldn't settle in Virginia.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 instance of enacted capital punishment in the Americas was also in Virginia, in 1622.

  • Over 40 Offenses Can Result In Capital Punishment

    There are over 40 offenses currently punishable by judicial executions in the US, almost all involve deliberately ending someone's life. Offenses such as forcing one's self on a child, enacting espionage, and committing treason, among others, could also result in a capital punishment sentence.

    However, no executions for offenses other than ending another's life have taken place in the US since 1964, when a man was sent to the chair for robbery.

  • The US Has Carried Out Multiple Mass Executions

    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 convicted Santee Sioux 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 a race riot in Houston. Before US independence, 26 convicted pirates were hanged in Newport, RI, in 1723.

  • Capital Punishment Was Suspended In The US For Nearly A Decade

    From 1967 until 1976, capital punishment was effectively banned 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 harsh penalty, as applied inconsistently and seemingly at random, violated the 8th and 14th Amendments.

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