On Sept. 21, a man named Troy Davis was executed by the state of Georgia after a 22-year stint on death row for killing an off-duty police officer, Mark MacPhail. Davis was Black. MacPhail was white.

Earlier that day, Lawrence Brewer was put to death by the state of Texas for dragging a man named James Byrd to death. Brewer was white. Byrd was Black.

Davis and Brewer were put to death legally under the rule of capital punishment, also known as the death penalty. You may have discussed this at your dinner table or with your friends and classmates. You may have watched the vigil outside the prison the night Davis was executed-the execution was delayed by four hours as the Supreme Court reviewed his case in a last-ditch, but failed, effort to save his life.

While one punishment seems to fit the crime, another leaves many unanswered questions about the use of such a final punishment. It’s an issue that divides the country.

Thirty-four states allow the death penalty while 16 states, including New York, do not. Today’s lesson takes a look at this important issue.

The death penalty goes back to the 18th century BCE, with the code of King Hammurabi of Babylon. It has since been used as the ultimate punishment by methods including beating, drowning, burning alive and impalement.

By the 16th century CE, under Britain’s King Henry VIII, 72,000 people had been executed by either boiling, burning at the stake, beheading, hanging or drawing and quartering. Capital offenses, those punishable by death, included not confessing to a crime and treason.

Over the next two centuries, there existed 222 different crimes that could get you the death sentence, including stealing or cutting down a tree.

European settlers brought the practice to this country. The first execution here was carried out in 1608 in Jamestown, Va., against Captain George Kendall. He was accused of being a spy.

But it didn’t take much to get executed. In 1612, under Virginia’s Divine Moral and Martial Laws, one could be executed for stealing grapes, killing chickens or trading with Indians. New York Colony instituted the Duke’s Laws of 1665, recommending capital punishment for such crimes as hitting a parent or denying the “true God.”

In 1767, capital punishment was challenged in an essay titled “On Crimes and Punishment,” written by Cesare Beccaria. As a result, America attempted to change the death penalty. Thomas Jefferson introduced a bill to reform Virginia’s laws, proposing that it only be used as punishment for murder and treason. The bill was defeated by only one vote.

Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and founder of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, challenged the belief that the death penalty slowed crime-he said it actually increased criminal behavior.

On this, Rush had the support of Benjamin Franklin and Philadelphia Attorney General William Bradford. Bradford later became the U.S. attorney general and led Pennsylvania to become the first state to define different types of murder. In 1794, Pennsylvania became the first state in the union to eliminate the death penalty for all offenses except first-degree murder. It was also the first to take executions out of public view.

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.

ACTIVITIES

  • 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.