The death penalty in the United States began its life as an import. Brought over from the United Kingdom, it evolved into different versions that depended largely on each state that adopted it.
Now the governor of Utah must decide whether to sign a bill that would reinstate execution by firing squad. This comes amid a shortage of drugs for lethal injection, a practice currently banned in all 50 states.
Virginia was the first colonial government known to kill a man, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The government executed George Kendall in 1608 after charging him with spying for Spain.
Four years later, activities such as exchanging goods with Native Americans or killing chickens were crimes punishable by death in Virginia. From 1665 in the colony of New York, residents could be killed for denying the “true God.”
But a contingent of colonial anti-death penalty activists had its first major legislative victory soon after America was founded. In 1794, Pennsylvania outlawed capital punishment for cases other than first-degree murder.
From there, the legality of the death penalty played out like a tug-of-war between opposers and supporters. Some states abolished it entirely; others invented new ways to kill inmates.
Michigan got rid of capital punishment for all cases except treason in 1846, while other states widened the list of crimes punishable by death. Rhode Island was the first to ban capital punishment for all crimes in 1852.
New York constructed the country’s first electric chair in 1888, and other states followed. Six states abolished capital punishment between 1907-1917.
But in 1924, in search of a more humane way to kill its death row inmates, Nevada tried to pump cyanide gas into the cell of inmate Gee Jon. That failed, so Nevada built a gas chamber.
The 1930s saw more executions in America than any other decade. Yet by the 1950s, as nations across the globe curbed or eliminated their use of the death penalty, American support for capital punishment also plunged. The number of executions followed suit.
By 1966, just 42% of the country supported it, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Then, in 1972, the Supreme Court made a historic decision. By a vote of 5-4, the court ruled that Georgia’s death penalty statute could be interpreted as “cruel and unusual” punishment.
The ruling affected death penalty laws in all states that still had them, effectively suspending the punishment nationwide.
But the Supreme Court hadn’t ruled that the death penalty itself was illegal. The justices just didn’t like the arbitrariness of Georgia law. It allowed states to rewrite their own legislation so that the language specified when the death penalty was and was not a viable punishment.
Florida proposed a new law in less than half a year, and 34 more states followed. By 1976, the Supreme Court had reinstated the penalty.
The next year, Utah famously executed Gary Gilmore — at his request — by firing squad. It was the first U.S. execution in 10 years.
From that point, support for the death penalty began to soar. By 1996, 78% of Americans supported capital punishment, according to Pew Research Center.
That number had slid back down to 55% by 2014, and capital punishment is currently legal in 32 states. Maryland was the most recent state to outlaw the death penalty, doing so in 2013.
Texas, by contrast, has executed 521 people since 1976, by far the most in the country.
Of the 32 states in which capital punishment is legal, the vast majority use lethal injection, which is a combination of deadly drugs that stops the inmate’s heart.
But some states have alternative methods. Death row inmates in Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, Virginia can request electrocution instead of lethal injection, and electrocution is the back-up plan in Oklahoma in case lethal injection becomes illegal.
In New Hampshire and Washington, prisoners can still be hanged.
No state currently allows death by firing squad. Utah banned the practice in 2004 — though the ban was not retroactive, so inmates who had already chosen to be executed that way were still shot. The last firing squad execution took place in Utah in 2010.
This month Gov. Gary Herbert will decide whether Utah becomes the only American state where execution by bullet is legal.
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