15th and 16th Cents.

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Starting in 1426, those charged with felonies in England who refuse to enter a plea are "pressed to death" until they either plead guilty or innocent. By some accounts, 72,000 subjects are hanged during Henry VIII's reign in England, which lasted from 1509 until 1547.


The first death penalty statutes, in what is now Massachusetts, are recorded in the New World. Among the offenses punishable by death are idolatry, witchcraft, blasphemy, murder, assault, sodomy, adultery, rape, perjury and rebellion. Statutes are listed in The Capital Laws of New-England.


In Pennsylvania, William Penn confines death penalty cases to murder and treason.

May 1787

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Speaking with Benjamin Franklin, Dr. Benjamin Rush calls for a penal system that rehabilitates offenders. His lectures and writings are regarded as the seed of death penalty protest in the United States


18th Century

Death is the penalty in England for all felonies, including property crimes, such as theft. The United States inherited much of its jurisprudence from the British Isles.

19th Century

Until the mid-19th century, all executions in England are public. In the United States, they are often summarily conducted, in secluded areas. Great crowds often attend English hangings. In both countries, the death penalty is in full force, though due process is not. 

March 1, 1847

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Michigan becomes first English-speaking territory in the world to abolish the death penalty. March 1 is now International Death Penalty Day.




After abolishing the death penalty once and reinstating it, Maine becomes the first state to abolish it twice.


Two calves and a horse are electrocuted in tests leading to the development of the electric chair. One New York newspaper writes prophetically that "alternating current will undoubtedly drive the (hangman) out of business."

Aug. 6, 1890

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After killing his lover with an ax in Buffalo, N.Y., William Kemmler is executed in the electric chair at Auburn Prison. Kemmler is the first person to be electrocuted.


Feb. 8, 1924

Found guilty of murder in Nevada, Gee Jon becomes the first person in the world to be legally executed with cyanide gas. Nevada lawmakers passed a bill, and Jon could have been gassed without warning in his sleep, but a judge modified it, creating the gas chamber.


During this period, the American federal government executes 34 people, including two women. Since Victor Feguer's hanging for kidnapping in Iowa in 1963, there have been no federal executions. Historically, the vast majority of U.S. executions were under state jurisdiction.


During the 1930s, there are more executions than in any decade. From 1930 to 1939, a total of 1,667 prisoners are executed in the United States. The year 1936 sees 199 executions - more than one every other day.

Aug. 14, 1936

Rainey Bethea is hanged for rape in what became the last public execution in America. A crowd of 20 000 spectators watch the execution. Florence Thompson, the first sheriff of Davies County (Owensboro, Kentucky) almost became the first woman executioner in the United States. The decision on who would pull the lever of the trap door was hers to make. Due to circumstances beyond her control, the final decision was only made moments before the execution.


The gas chamber rises in popularity as a method for execution, joining hanging and electrocution.

April 13, 1961

U.S. Army Private John A.Bennett is hanged after being convicted of rape and attempted murder. To date, he is the last person executed under the military death penalty. Seven other military personnel are currently on death row.


AP PhotoWorldwide, there are seven known methods of execution:
· Hanging (54 countries)
· Firing squad (35 countries)
· Beheading (eight countries)
· Electrocution (Philippines and parts of the United States)
· Gas chamber (United States)
· Strangulation (Spain)
· Stoning (Saudi Arabia)

late 1960s

All but 10 U.S. states have laws authorizing capital punishment, but strong pressure by death penalty opponents results in an unofficial moratorium on executions, with the decade's last execution in 1967.


In the landmark death penalty ruling of Furman vs. Georgia, the U.S. Supreme Court says the death penalty does not violate the Constitution, but that the manner of its application in many states did. It is shown that capital punishment is likely to be imposed in a discriminatory way and that blacks are far more likely to be executed than whites.


In Gregg vs. Georgia, the Supreme Court holds as constitutional a Georgia death penalty statute (similar to the ones indirectly challenged in the Furman case) and sets the stage for the validation of other state death statutes.

Jan. 17, 1977

Convicted murderer Gary Gilmore is executed by a firing squad in Utah. Gilmore's execution marks the return of the death penalty's use after a 10-year pause.


The Supreme Court rules in Coker vs. Georgia that use of the death penalty in rape cases is unconstitutional because the sentence is disproportionate to the crime. The Coker case results in the removal from death row of 20 inmates - three whites and 17 blacks - awaiting execution.


Mumia Abu-Jamal is condemned to death for killing a Philadelphia police officer. Today he continues to maintain his innocence and is petitioning for a new trial.


The Supreme Court rules in Thompson vs. Oklahoma that people younger than 16 when they committed a crime may not be sentenced to death. Some politicians have challenged this notion, of not executing convicts who committed crimes as juveniles. The United States has executed several people younger than 18 who committed crimes.

mid-'80s to mid-'90s

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More and more states adopt lethal injection to execute prisoners. Lethal injection is currently the most-used method.


A Maritz AmeriPoll poll finds that 63 percent of Americans support capital punishment. Only 23 percent of those polled oppose the death penalty, while 13 percent are undecided.


Congress enacts a new federal death penalty, called the Drug Kingpin Statute, for murder in the course of a drug conspiracy. Six people have been sentenced under this federal law, but none executed.


The omnibus federal crime bill lists about 60 federal death penalty offenses.


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A federal judge in California terms his state's gas chamber a form of "cruel and unusual punishment." As of 1998, five U.S. states, however, still rely on the gas chamber as a legal method of execution.


Five nations - Azerbaijan, Estonia, Canada, Bulgaria and Lithuania - abolish the death penalty for all crimes. As of March 29, 2001, 75 countries have abolished capital punishment.

Jan. 31, 2000

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Gov. George H. Ryan declares a moratorium on executions of Illinois death row inmates until a review can be conducted. "I now favor a moratorium, because I have grave concerns about our state's shameful record of convicting innocent people and putting them on death row," Ryan says.

May 3, 2001

Official audio recordings of 23 electrocutions carried out in Georgia from 1983 through 1989 are broadcast nationally. The tapes, recorded by prison staff, document the events taking place in the execution chamber. The Atlanta station WAGA-TV broadcast portions of the tapes in February. And Georgia Public Radio broadcast them several years ago.


A total of 87 countries retain and use the death penalty; the United States, China, Iran, and Nigeria are noteworthy for a high number of executions.

Thirteen countries have abolished it in all instances except for "exceptional" offenses, such as war crimes.

Twenty countries have the death penalty, but have not carried out an execution in more than 10 years.

June 11, 2001

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Timothy McVeigh, convicted for the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City in which 168 people died, is executed by lethal injection - the first federal execution in 38 years. Eight days later, Juan Raul Garza, a narcotics smuggler who admitted to ordering drug-related murders, is put to death by the federal government on the same gurney.

June 20, 2002

In a major reversal, the Supreme Court rules 6-3 that executing the mentally retarded violates the Constitution. Writing for the majority, Justice John Paul Stevens cites a "national consensus" against executing a killer who may lack the intelligence to fully understand his crime.

June 24, 2002

The Supreme Court (7-2) overturns the death sentences of dozens of convicted killers, ruling that juries, not judges, must make the decision. The court makes its ruling retroactive, meaning that more than 150 death sentences must be reconsidered.

July 1, 2002

A federal trial judge becomes the first U.S. judge to declare the current federal death penalty unconstitutional. U.S. District Court Judge Jed Rakoff says too many innocent people have been executed before they could be vindicated.

Sept. 24, 2002

A second federal judge declares the federal death penalty unconstitutional, saying the law does not adequately protect defendants' rights. U.S. District Judge William Sessions' ruling came in the case of Donald Fell, 22, who is facing the death penalty for allegedly kidnapping and killing a woman in 2000.

Oct. 21, 2002

A bitterly-divided Supreme Court refuses to consider whether executing killers who were under 18 when they committed their crimes violates the Constitution's ban on "cruel and unusual punishment." The four dissenting judges wrote that the practice is a "relic of the past" that's "shameful." Still, the court's refusal to hear the case in question was widely expected.

Dec. 10, 2002

A federal appeals court reverses Judge Rakoff's July ruling that the federal death penalty is unconstitutional. The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals says precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court prohibits it from upholding the ruling.

Jan. 11, 2003

Citing a moral obligation to act because the capital punishment system is "haunted by the demon of error," Illinois Gov. George Ryan commutes the sentences of all 167 condemned inmates on the state's death row.

Sept. 2, 2003

A federal appeals court overturns about 100 death sentences in Arizona and elsewhere because the inmates were sent to death row by judges instead of juries. The case stems from a 2002 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, in which the high court found that juries, not judges, must render death sentences.


Five countries — Bhutan, Greece, Samoa, Senegal and Turkey — abolish the death penalty, bringing the total number of countries to end the practice at 105.

Jan. 23, 2004

The Illinois state Supreme Court rules that former Gov. George Ryan had the power to commute the sentences of all 167 death row inmates before he left office, saying that governor's pardon power is essentially unreviewable. The state's attorney general had challenged his constitutional authority in some cases where the inmate had not sought clemency or was in the appeals process.

March 1, 2005

The U.S. Supreme Court rules 5-4 that the Constitution forbids the execution of killers who were under 18 when they committed their crimes, saying the practice violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The decision overturns the law in 19 states and throws out the death sentences of about 70 juvenile murderers.  

Dec. 2, 2005

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Double murderer Kenneth Lee Boyd became the 1,000th prisoner executed in the United States since the reinstatement of capital punishment in 1977 when he was put to death by lethal injection in North Carolina. Boyd, 57, killed his estranged wife and her father in 1988.

Jan. 17, 2006

California executes Clarence Ray Allen, its oldest death row inmate, minutes after his 76th birthday. The execution took place despite arguments that putting to death an elderly, blind and wheelchair-bound man was cruel and unusual punishment. Allen arranged a triple murder 25 years ago.  

Feb. 21, 2006

In California, the execution of convicted killer Michael Morales was postponed for the second time in less than a day amid continuing concerns over the constitutionality of the state's lethal injection policy. An hour before Morales was to be strapped to a gurney in the death chamber at San Quentin Prison, officials called off the execution, saying they could not comply with a judge's recent order to have a medical provider administer the fatal dose of barbiturate.

June 26, 2006

The Supreme Court, by a 5-to-4 vote, ruled that Kansas' death penalty law is constitutional. Justices for the majority felt the Kansas Supreme Court incorrectly interpreted the Eighth Amendment's protection against cruel and unusual punishment to strike down the state's death penalty statute. The ruling affirms the court's long-held position that states should determine how juries weigh factors presented by the prosecution and defense in capital cases.

Dec. 15, 2006

Fla. Gov. Jeb Bush suspends all executions after Angel Nieves Diaz, a career criminal executed for killing a Miami topless bar manager 27 years ago, was given a rare second dose of deadly chemicals as he took more than twice the usual time to succumb. Separately, a federal judge extended a moratorium on executions in California, declaring that its method of lethal injection violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

April 30, 2007

In North Carolina, a state judge rules that death-row inmates might have the right to argue the merits of lethal injection with state officials. Lawyers for five death-row inmates filed suit, arguing that the Council of State broke the law when it approved a new execution protocol in February. According to lawyers, the council should have gotten public input, including hearing from condemned inmates, before changing policy, which calls for physicians to monitor the condemned inmate's vital signs and to halt an execution if it appears the inmate is in pain.

Sept. 25, 2007

The United States Supreme Court agreed to hear a case that challenges the constitutionality of the mix of drugs used in lethal injection. Baze vs Kentucky is expected to be heard early in 2008 with a decision expected in June, 2008. This causes all executions using lethal injection to be stayed until the Supreme Court rules on the issue.  

Sept. 25, 2007

Michael Wayne Richards was executed in Texas hours after the Supreme Court agreed to hear challenges on the method of lethal injection. It was reported that Richard's lawyers could not submit their application due to internal computer problems and the state office would not stay open pass the deadline (5:00 pm). Richards could be the last person executed in the United States until the Supreme Court rules sometime in mid 2008. 

May 6, 2008

The state of Georgia executed William Lynd on May 6, 2008. Lynd was the first prisoner in the US scheduled to be executed in six months following the US Supreme Court's ruling in Baze v. Rees upholding the Kentucky lethal injection protocol.