On Death Penalty in the U.S.


Kayla Cheng, Staff Writer

Since 1970, 1,529 men and women have been executed through capital punishment. According to the Criminal Justice Project of the NAACP, there are 2,620 people on death row in the United States as of 2020. 

The death penalty was first introduced to America by the British. As European settlers conquered the new world, they brought over their practice of capital punishment. First recorded in Jamestown, Virginia in 1608, executions in the new colonies, especially Virginia, kept escalating to the point where petty crimes such as stealing grapes, slaughtering chickens, or even trading with the natives were punishable by death under the Moral and Martial Laws. These laws promoted a rather authoritarian system of government in Virginia and were enforced to keep the colonists in check, though the colonists felt that death as punishment for such minor offenses was too extreme. Following Virginia, other states gradually started to also use the death penalty to sentence criminals. 

Below is a brief timeline of the death penalty in the United States:

1834: Pennsylvania became the first to move executions into correctional facilities, which ultimately ended public executions. 

1890: William Kemmler became the first to be executed by electrocution. 

1907-1917: Nine states abolished the death penalty, and, by 1920, five of those states had already reinstated it. 

1924: Cyanide gas was introduced as an execution method. 

1977: Oklahoma became the first to adopt lethal injection as a means of execution.

1986: In the case of Ford v Wainwright in 1986, executions of diagnosed insane persons is banned.

1988: In the Thompson v. Oklahoma case, executions for people age 15 and younger at the time of their crimes were declared unconstitutional.

2002: In the Atkins v Virginia case, the SCOTUS rules that execution of mentally disabled defendants violates the 8th Amendment’s ban on cruel punishment.

2012: Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy revises the penalty for capital felonies into law and replaces the death penalty with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. However, the law is deemed not to retract the decisions of those already on death row.

2016: The Delaware Supreme Court rules capital punishment as unconstitutional and the attorney general announces that the decision will not be appealed.

2020: The SCOTUS turns away the federal government’s lethal injection protocol, which kickstarts the Trump administration’s first federal executions after a more or less 20 year hiatus.

New Jersey outlawed the death penalty in 2007, and now a life sentence without the possibility of parole is considered one of the highest punishments to which an individual can be sentenced. Before outlawing capital punishment, there were 361 people executed in the state for both federal and military executions. Moreover, New Jersey was the first state to legislatively abolish the death penalty since 1965, and also the first to have a moratorium on executions through legislation.

As of today, 28 states still use capital punishment as a form of punishment. People such as Brandon Bernard and Pervis Payne have recently caused an uproar in the media, causing many to rethink the validity and morality of the death penalty and if the government truly has the right to take one’s life. Both cases introduce the idea that racial bias and stereotypes influence the decisions made inside court. Bernard’s case was reviewed with an almost all-white jury under the pretense that he, a black man, helped in the murder-robbery of Todd and Stacie Bageley, in which he directly killed Stacie Bageley. New information arose that the prosecutor at the time withheld evidence that could have potentially lessened Bernard’s charge, as well as the fact that misinformed professionals swayed the jury’s final decision. Payne is still on death row, and hundreds of thousands have signed petitions and shed awareness on his case in order to give him justice. Not only has no evidence been found of his involvement in his convicted crimes, but he had no motive, no prior criminal activity, and is living with an intellectual disability. 

Organizations such as the Innocence Project Organization and Marshall Project Organization are extremely helpful resources when trying to find out who is scheduled to receive the death penalty in the near future. The Innocence Project Organization especially advocates for wrongly convicted or wrongly punished individuals such as Pervis Payne, who is set for execution on April 9, 2021. To help those who were wrongfully convicted, or who are on death row because of racial, economical, and sexist injustice, you can make or sign petitions on change.org, bring awareness through social media platforms, or get involved in organizations such as the previously mentioned Innocence Project. Ultimately it is important that we as a society collectively organize our opinions on this matter and make a decision, as the death penalty is something that should not be taken lightly.