The Death Penalty in the United States

Prisoners on Texas Death Row

Per-Anders Pettersson / Getty Images

Penitentiaries didn't become part of the U.S. criminal justice system until the early 19th century, so sentences were handed down based on how well they might deter future crimes, not how well they rehabilitate the defendant. From this point of view, there's a cold logic to the death penalty: it reduces the recidivism rate of those sentenced to zero.


The first man formally executed by a British colony was Jamestown Council member George Kendall, who faced a firing squad for alleged espionage activity.


When James Madison proposed the Eighth Amendment prohibiting "cruel and unusual punishment," it could not have reasonably been interpreted as banning the death penalty by the standards of its time—the death penalty was cruel, but certainly not unusual. But as more and more countries ban capital punishment, the definition of "cruel and unusual" continues to change.


The aftermath of the Sioux Uprising of 1862 presented a quandary for President Abraham Lincoln: allow the execution of 303 prisoners of war, or don't. Despite pressure from local leaders to execute all 303 (the original sentence handed down by military tribunals), Lincoln chose to compromise consigning the 38 prisoners convicted of attacking or killing civilians to death but commuting the sentences of the rest. The 38 were hanged together in the largest mass execution in U.S. history—which, despite Lincoln's mitigation, remains a dark moment in the history of American civil liberties.


William Kemmler becomes the first person to be executed in the electric chair.


19 African-American military veterans are executed by the U.S. government for their role in the Houston Riot.


Gee Jon becomes the first person executed in the United States by cyanide gas. Gas chamber executions would remain a common form of execution until the 1980s when they were largely replaced by lethal injection. In 1996, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declared death by poison gas to be a form of cruel and unusual punishment.


Bruno Hauptmann is executed in the electric chair for the murder of Charles Lindbergh Jr., the infant son of celebrity aviators Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh. It remains, in all likelihood, the most well-known execution in U.S. history.


Julius and Ethel Rosenberg are executed in the electric chair for allegedly passing on nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union.


In Furman v. Georgia, the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down the death penalty as a form of cruel and unusual punishment on the basis that it is "arbitrary and capricious." Four years later, after states reform their death penalty laws, the Supreme Court rules in Gregg v. Georgia that the death penalty no longer constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, given the new system of checks and balances.


The American Bar Association calls for a moratorium on the use of capital punishment in the United States.


Convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh is executed by lethal injection, becoming the first person executed by the federal government since 1963.


In Roper v. Simmons, the Supreme Court rules that the execution of children and minors under the age of 18 constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.


In a bipartisan effort, Nebraska became the 19th state to eliminate the death penalty.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Head, Tom. "The Death Penalty in the United States." ThoughtCo, Jul. 29, 2021, Head, Tom. (2021, July 29). The Death Penalty in the United States. Retrieved from Head, Tom. "The Death Penalty in the United States." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 1, 2023).