Understanding the ultimate punishment

JASMIN K. WILLIAMS Special to the AmNews | 10/12/2011, 6:19 p.m.
On Sept. 21, a man named Troy Davis was executed by the state of Georgia...
Troy Davis: Stop the execution!

Meanwhile, other states were increasing the number of crimes punishable by death, especially for slaves. All states used the death penalty for any capital crime, regardless of circumstances. In 1838, Tennessee and Alabama stopped using it as mandatory punishment. In 1846, Michigan became the first state to stop using it for all crimes except treason. Rhode Island and Wisconsin stopped using it completely. The last mandatory capital punishment laws were abolished in 1963, just 48 years ago.

The methods of execution also changed over time. In 1888, New York became the first state to use the electric chair. The first person executed on it was William Kemmler. In 1924, cyanide gas was introduced in Nevada as a more humane way to execute prisoners. Gee Jon was the first person executed this way.

During the 1930s, as the country suffered through the Great Depression and prohibition, the number of executions soared to 167 per year.

By the 1960s, the death penalty was deemed as "cruel and unusual punishment" and unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution. In 1968, the Supreme Court beginning to reform the use of capital punishment.

In 1972, the landmark cases of Furman v. Georgia, Jackson v. Georgia and Branch v. Texas changed the way capital punishment cases were decided. In the Furman case, the Supreme Court decided that a punishment would be cruel and unusual if it was too severe for the crime; if it offended society's sense of justice; or if it was not more effective than a lesser penalty.

On June 29, 1972, the court voided 40 death penalty rules. This resulted in commuted sentences for 629 death row inmates around the country.

As the courts reformed the use of this ultimate punishment, no executions took place for a period of 10 years. That ended Jan. 17, 1977, when Gary Gilmore was executed by a firing squad in Utah.

Oklahoma became the first state to formally use lethal injection as a method of execution. Charles Brooks was the first person to die by this method in Texas on Dec. 7, 1982.

Does capital punishment bring closure, even in the most clear-cut cases? "You can't fight murder with murder," said Ross Byrd, a son of James Byrd. "Life in prison would have been fine. I know he can't hurt my daddy anymore. I wish the state would take in mind that this isn't what we want."

Since the first death in 1608, more than 15,000 people have been executed in the United States. The debate over its use continues.


  • Look it up: Use the Internet or another reference source to learn more about the practice of capital punishment.
  • Talk About It: How do you feel about this type of punishment? Are you for it or against it? Discuss your reasons with your classmates.
  • Write It Down: How do you feel about the recent executions of Davis and Brewer? Do you think these decisions were right or wrong? Write down your reasons and discuss with your classmates.