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The History of Death-Row Executions

Execution of David van der Leyen and Levina Ghyselins Dutch Anabaptists or Mennonites by Catholic authorities in Ghent in 1554. From Bracht's MARTYR'S MIRROR 1660

The death penalty is a controversial topic for some, but it has its place in history and in the prison system. From the methods of execution to where it all began, here is a brief history of death row.

The Origins of Death Row

The penalty of death for certain crimes has been around since the eighteenth century B.C. The death sentence was given for 25 different crimes, and the means of death was through impalement, crucifixion, being burned alive, being beaten, or by drowning.

In modern times, hanging was the execution of choice across Britain in the tenth century. By the sixteenth century, other methods were in use as well, and included people being boiling alive, being drawn and quartered, and being burned at the stake—hanging was also still common.

In America, the first execution didn’t happen until 1608. It was enacted for treason and spying in the beginning, but by 1612 the death penalty was used as punishment for petty crimes like theft. Just as the death penalty varies from state-to-state now (with some states not having it at all and others using only certain types of execution), there were differences from colony to colony in the beginning.

Modern-Day Executions

The most common means of death penalty execution in the modern-day world have been the use of lethal injection, the gas chamber, electrocution, hanging, and death by firing squad. None of these methods are considered unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

Lethal injection is the most widely used and still in use in all states with the death penalty, along with the U.S. Military. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 1,331 people have been executed via lethal injection since 1976. The problem with this form of execution is that the drugs needed aren’t always available, meaning that a different form of execution must take its place.

Electrocution is the next most used form of execution (and was used on serial killer Ted Bundy, among others). Nine states use electrocution, but mostly only as an alternative. A total of 161 electrocutions have been performed since 1976.

The use of lethal gas, a firing squad, and hanging are far less used. Lethal injection is the primary mode of execution in the 3 states that use hanging, the 3 that use a firing squad, and the 6 that use lethal gas. Since 1976, there have only been 3 executions each via firing squad and hanging. Lethal gas has been used 11 times.

Crimes that Get the Death Penalty

These days, stealing some grapes isn’t going to get you the death penalty. In fact, the only thing that will get you the death penalty is murder. Prior to the death penalty being reinstated in 1976, the punishment was sometimes used for rapists. Rape, armed robbery, and other violent crimes were on the table during the reinstatement, but it was decided that it was unconstitutional.

Even so, there are still issues with giving the death penalty to someone charged with murder. Not all people charged with murder actually kill someone. They may have been an accomplice to the murderer. It’s cases like this that have courts often only mandating the death penalty in extreme cases.

States with No Death Penalty

Twentuy-nine states use the death penalty, although four of them have a gubernatorial moratorium. California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Oregon have decided to hold off on executing anyone who has been given a penalty of death for their crimes. There are various reasons that states put a moratorium on the death penalty, one reason being that they don’t want to put a possibly innocent person to death.

While many of the states that still have the death penalty rarely follow through with executions, 21 states have already abolished the death penalty (some of them recently). While on a federal level, the death penalty is not seen as unconstitutional, some states view things differently. The most recent states to join the ranks of those abolishing this type of punishment are Washington (2018) and New Hampshire (2019). When New Mexico placed their abolishment into effect in 2009, it didn’t include those already on death row—not until 2019, anyway.

The other 18 states on the list of those that have abolished the death penalty are, in order of abolishment:

  • Michigan (1847)
  • Wisconsin (1853)
  • Maine (1887)
  • Minnesota (1911)
  • Hawaii (1957)
  • Alaska (1957)
  • Iowa (1965)
  • West Virginia (1965)
  • Vermont (1972)
  • North Dakota (1973)
  • Rhode Island (1984)
  • Massachusetts (1984)
  • New Jersey (2007)
  • New York (2007)
  • Illinois (2011)
  • Connecticut (2012)
  • Maryland (2013)
  • Delaware (2016)

Executions do happen, even if you don’t hear about them. The Next to Die is a website that lists all of those on death row in states that still have the death penalty. It includes up-to-date information on those put to death, stays for those on death row, and more.

Yvonne Glasgow Yvonne Glasgow
Yvonne Glasgow has been a professional writer for almost two decades. Yvonne has worked for nutritionists, start-ups, dating companies, SEO firms, newspapers, board game companies, and much more as a writer and editor. She's also a published poet and a short story writer. Read Full Bio »