History of the Death Penalty

BOOKS: "An Evil Day in Georgia"

Through the lens of a 1927 murder and the ensuing trials of three suspects, An Evil Day in Georgia examines the death penalty system in Prohibition-era Georgia. James Hugh Moss, a black man, and Clifford Thompson, a white man, both from Tennessee, were accused of the murder of store owner Coleman Osborn in rural north Georgia. Thought to be involved in the illegal interstate trade of alcohol, they were tried, convicted, and sentenced to death on circumstantial evidence within a month of the murder. Thompson's wife, Eula Mae Elrod, was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death the following year, but was released in 1936 after her case gained notoriety in the press. "Moss, Thompson, and Elrod...were almost classic examples of perceived social outsiders or rebels who ran afoul of a judicial system not designed to protect them but to weed them out and discourage others who might think about challenging the system," author Robert N. Smith says. "Moreover, all three trials were held in circumstances where local tensions ran so high that conviction was virtually assured." John Bessler, author of Cruel and Unusual: The American Death Penalty and the Founders’ Eighth Amendment, said, "In An Evil Day in Georgia, author Robert Smith raises lingering questions about the guilt of two men—one white and one black—executed for a murder in the Deep South in the 1920s. . . . The telling of this story, one that played out in the Jim Crow era and the days of bootlegging and the Ku Klux Klan, exposes the death penalty’s imperfections even as it calls into question the veracity of a woman’s confession, later recanted, that once brought her within a stone’s throw of the state’s electric chair."

Tennessee Supreme Court Contemplates Electric Chair Appeal on 25th Anniversary of Botched Florida Electrocution

The week of the 25th anniversary of Florida's gruesome botched electric chair execution of Jesse Tafero (pictured), the Tennessee Supreme Court began hearing a challenge to the administration of a state law that would resurrect the use of that State's electric chair if lethal injection drugs are unavailable. On May 6, 2015, the Tennessee justices heard argument on death-row inmates' right to know which method of execution will be used in their cases.  The Justices voiced concerns about the secrecy that the law allows to shield the execution process and the decision about which method to use. "How are the defendants supposed to know?" Justice Cornelia A. Clark asked, offering a hypothetical situation in which an inmate expects to be executed by lethal injection until he sees the electric chair set up in the execution chamber. Deputy Attorney General Jennifer Smith argued that execution by electric chair is "just not going to happen," but Chief Justice Sharon Lee said that the inmates' evidence regarding the unavailability of execution drugs suggests, "execution (by the electric chair) is very probable."  On May 4, 1990, witnesses to Tafero's execution reported that a problem with Florida's electric chair caused foot-high flames to shoot from Tafero's head. Current had to be applied three times because the first two shocks failed to kill him.

STUDIES: Lynchings in America Related to Racial Bias in Death Penalty

A new report from the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) of Alabama has documented more lynchings in American history than previously reported, particularly of African Americans in the South, and has drawn parallels between this practice and the modern death penalty. According to EJI, the report--titled Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror --"makes the case that lynching of African Americans was terrorism, a widely supported phenomenon used to enforce racial subordination and segregation." The report draws connections between lynchings and abuses in the criminal justice system that persist today: "[L]ynching reinforced a narrative of racial difference and a legacy of racial inequality that is readily apparent in our criminal justice system today. Mass incarceration, racially biased capital punishment, excessive sentencing, disproportionate sentencing of racial minorities, and police abuse of people of color reveal problems in American society that were shaped by the terror era." (emphasis added). A New York Times editorial about the report made a similar point: "The researchers argue, for example, that lynching declined as a mechanism of social control as the Southern states shifted to a capital punishment strategy, in which blacks began more frequently to be executed after expedited trials. The legacy of lynching was apparent in that public executions were still being used to mollify mobs in the 1930s even after such executions were legally banned."

NEW VOICES: Doubts About the Death Penalty Among American Founders

In a recent op-ed in the National Law Journal, historian John Bessler described the ambivalence among American founders toward the death penalty. He noted, "Although early U.S. laws authorized executions, the founders greatly admired a now little-known Italian writer, Cesare Beccaria, who fervently opposed capital punishment. They also were fascinated by the penitentiary system's potential to eliminate cruel punishments." Thomas Jefferson wrote, "Beccaria and other writers on crimes and punishments had satisfied the reasonable world of the unrightfulness and inefficacy of the punishment of crimes by death." James Madison, the father of the Constitution, was one of several founding fathers who sought to reduce the number of executions, saying, "I should not regret a fair and full trial of the entire abolition of capital punishments by any State willing to make it." Bessler concluded, "[T]he Founding Fathers were deeply ambivalent about capital punishment. Indeed, they embraced the principle of Montesquieu and Beccaria that any punishment that goes beyond what is 'absolutely necessary' is 'tyrannical.' In an era of maximum-security prisons and life-without-parole sentences, the death penalty can no longer be considered necessary."

Florida's Troubled History With the Death Penalty

A recent retrospective in the Fort Myers Florida Weekly on the state's death penalty traced some of the problems that have arisen since Florida resumed executions in 1979. During the execution of Jesse Tafero in 1990, six-inch flames shot from the prisoner’s head, and three separate jolts of electricity were required to kill him. Prison officials attributed it to “inadvertent human error.” In the execution of Pedro Medina in 1997, flames and smoke again spewed out from under the head gear. Ron McAndrew, the warden at the time, recently remarked, “For the next 11 minutes, instead of electrocuting this man, we burned him to death. We literally burned him to death.” Florida Supreme Court Justice Leander Shaw called such executions “barbaric spectacles” and said they were “acts more befitting a violent murderer than a civilized state.” Florida also has more exonerations (24) from death row than any other state. It is the only state that allows a jury to recommend a death sentence by a simple majority; most states require unanimity. The state's recent passage of the Timely Justice Act, designed to speed up executions, has raised concerns that it will reduce death row inmates' opportunities to prove their innocence.

NEW RESOURCES: Podcast Series on Each State's Death Penalty

DPIC has recently added four podcasts to our new series on important facts about the death penalty in each state. Seven state podcasts are now available: Michigan, Wisconsin, Maine, Minnesota, North Dakota, Alaska, and Hawaii. We expect to add new episodes each week, with two more coming tomorow (Oct. 17). The series has begun with states that have abolished the death penalty, and focuses on the developments leading to repeal in those states. The issues that brought those states to abolition are often similar to the ones states with the death penalty are facing today, including wrongful convictions, unfairness, and the methods of execution. We hope this new series will be an excellent resource for those interested in the diversity of positions states have taken on this key social question and for students researching their state's history. Our earlier series of podcasts, DPIC on the Issues covers a variety of topics related to the death penalty, including Innocence, Costs, and Lethal Injection. You can listen to all of our podcasts on our Podcasts page or by subscribing on iTunes.

BOOKS - CONSTITUTION DAY: "The Birth of American Law"

In The Birth of American Law: An Italian Philosopher and the American Revolution, historian John Bessler reveals the profound influence that the Italian thinker, Cesare Beccaria, had on the constitutional founders of the United States, including George Washington and John Adams. Beccaria's bestselling book, On Crimes and Punishments, argued against torture and the death penalty, saying only punishments proven absolutely necessary should be used. Bessler shows that the death penalty was more controversial at the writing of the constitution than is often assumed today. America did abandon England's Bloody Code and eventually most corporal punishment, but still retains capital punishment. Julie Silverbrook, executive director of The Constitutional Sources Project, said of the book, "John Bessler masterfully and comprehensively traces how Cesare Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments deeply affected early American views on crime and the proportionality of punishments for crime. Just as John Adams gifted Beccaria’s treatise to his sons, John Bessler has gifted Beccaria to a new generation of Americans."

UPDATE: In 2015, Bessler's book was given the Scribes Book Award as the best work of legal scholarship in 2014 by the American Society of Legal Writers.

NEW RESOURCES: Podcasts on Individual States

DPIC is beginning a new series of podcasts based on the history of the death penalty in each state. The series will first present the states that have ended the death penalty. Three podcasts, featuring Michigan, Wisconsin, and Maine, are now available. These short audio clips summarize the history surrounding the repeal of the death penalty in those states, including famous cases, issues that spurred legislators to take action, and subsequent attempts at reinstatement of the death penalty. We hope this new series will be an excellent resource for students researching their state's history, and for anyone curious about how historical events shaped our present-day capital punishment system. Our earlier series of podcasts dealt with the many issues surrounding the death penalty. You can listen to these and all of our podcasts on our Podcasts page or by subscribing on iTunes.

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