History of Capital Punishment in the Us

Since the Middle Ages

All societies have maintained the death penalty as a necessary form of punishment for those who committed heinous crimes in accordance with the particular culture. In the majority of cases, the penalty was frequently meted out to specific people, as in cases of rape, murder, and adultery, or to the entire society, as in cases of treason and espionage. Indeed, historical records demonstrate that the death sentence has been used as a form of disciplinary punishment since the first accounts were written down. Nevertheless, the severity of the error committed varies among societies' use of the death sentence to punish offenders. Moreover, the methods of executing the death penalty have varied from society to society with some communities carrying out decapitation, stoning, shooting with guns, and others dismemberment (Daileda, 2015).

In the contemporary world

The death punishment has changed from the lethal methods to more quick and humane practices. For example, some countries use the lethal injections which take the life of the convicted person in a painless way. Indeed, the death penalty has faced a plethora of controversies from the human rights activists leading to the abolishment of the death penalty in most countries. In the United States of America, the death penalty has continued to receive mixed reactions with some states passing laws that abolish the death penalty while others are adopting other forms of the death penalty (Yorke, 2008). The role of this paper is to highlight the death penalty in the United States of America and thus give a better understanding of the United States laws.

History of the Capital Punishment in the United States

In the United States of America, the first person to face execution was Captain George Kendall who was found guilty of spying for Spain (Daileda, 2015). Captain George Kendall was executed in the year 1608 by the firing squad in the British settlement of Georgetown of Jamestown colony of Virginia. Over the years that followed, small crimes such as the killing of chickens, stealing grapes, and conducting trade with the Indians was punishable by death. Historical records indicate that the laws regarding death law differed from colony to colony with Massachusetts performing the first execution in the year 1630 (Dwankowski, 2012). In a colony such as New York, after the institution of the Duke's laws in the year 1665, crimes such as denying the true God and hitting one’s parent were punishable by death.

In the later years

The abolitionist movement that was against the death sentence became prominent because of writings from such European theorist as Montesquieu, Bentham, and Voltaire. Further, the movement gained traction in the year 1764 when the Italian jurist Cesare Beccaria wrote “on crimes and punishment” in which he condemned capital punishment. In the 19th century, many states abolished the death penalty during the “Jacksonian era” which condemned the death penalty and recommended the use of more humane methods of treating criminals (Dwankowski, 2017). In the recent years, numerous debates have existed about the morality and constitutionality of the death penalty, with people proposing a sentence that respects life in all its stages. During the 1960s, the death penalty faced tremendous opposition, and it was thus declared unconstitutional under the eighth amendment of the US Constitution with the view that it was “cruel and unusual” punishment (Dwankowski, 2017).

Over the years

The death penalty was challenged by abolitionists with many cases brought before facing great impartiality to the death sentence. Of note is the U.S v. Jackson case of 1968 where the court ruled that it impaired the provisions under the eighth amendment of the US constitution (Dwankowski, 2017). In the year 1968, pending issues raised at the US Supreme Court regarding how capital punishment should be applied made States impose a moratorium, and all executions were put on hold for the next decade until all the discussions of all contentious issues. The year 1972 saw the death penalty declared unconstitutional with their resumption in the year 1977 in Utah. However, the later years saw the Supreme Court hold that some of the crimes committed by convicts were not punishable by death, and these cases included those crimes perpetrated by a Juvenile and offenses perpetrated by the mentally disabled. Indeed, the Thompson v. Oklahoma case of 1988 is one instance with a minor where there was an overturning of the death sentence based on “cruel and unusual” punishment (Dwankowski, 2017).

Cruel and Unusual Punishment

According to Melusky, & Pesto (2003), the eighth amendment of the US constitution gives the right to the convicted individuals to be free from “cruel and unusual” punishment during their conviction. Indeed, the US Constitution guarantees that there is the regard of the fundamental rights of the convicted person concerning the confinement and the treatment accorded to the convict by the corrections personnel. However, there is no universal definition of the term cruel and unusual punishment, but that punishment that contravenes the fundamental human rights of the person. Over the years, the debate has existed over what constitutes “cruel and unusual” with four primary dimensions issued to assist in deciding if a punishment falls under “cruel and unusual” (Melusky, & Pesto, 2003). The generic tests that serve as a guide to what constitutes “cruel and unusual” include, first, the frequency of the occurrence of the punishment in the society. Second, the acceptance of the penalty in the community. Third, the severity of the penalty and whether it fits the crime committed by the convict. Lastly, the court must check whether the punishment is arbitrary (Melusky, & Pesto, 2003).

Clearly, the term “cruel and unusual is a relative term, and this can vary from country to country. For example in Saudi Arabia, stoning to death is still practiced as a form of capital punishment. Undeniably, though the eighth amendment to the US constitution exists, it does not comprehensively provide a list of all those crimes that fall under “cruel and unusual,” and it is, therefore, open to interpretation by the court (Yorke, 2008). There was the adoption of the four dimensions during the Furman v. Georgia case, where the court determined that the imposition of the death penalty on Furman would constitute the violation of “cruel and unusual” punishment. The Furman decision affected all other pending cases at the time, leading to their sentence reduction to life imprisonment (Yorke, 2008).


Clearly, all over the world, the death penalty continues to receive mainstream attention, with many countries calling for the fair treatment of the convicts. In the United States of America, the eighth amendment of the US constitution has seen many people face lesser punishments because of the provision under the “cruel and unusual.” Further, though the country has seen lots of improvement on how they handle death penalty convicts, the execution of innocent people remains at the forefront of many abolitionist agendas. Moreover, the worldwide pressure against the death penalty is sometimes the reason the country has seen radical changes in the public support of capital punishments.


Daileda, C. (2015). American execution: A brief history of the death penalty in the U.S. Mashable. Retrieved 31 March 2017, from http://mashable.com/2015/03/11/history-of-american-death-penalty/#gmyH_aotNPqd

Dwankowski, C. (2012). The Death Penalty in the USA – A Short History. Ndla.no. Retrieved 31 March 2017, from http://ndla.no/en/node/103196?fag=71082#

Melusky, J., & Pesto, K. (2003). Cruel and unusual punishment (1st ed.). Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, Inc.

Yorke, J. (2008). Against the death penalty (1st ed.). Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Company.

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