Changes in Death Penalty Laws

Nineteenth Century

In the early part of the nineteenth century, many states reduced the number of their capital crimes and built state penitentiaries. In 1834, Pennsylvania became the first state to move executions away from the public eye and carry them out in correctional facilities.

In 1846, Michigan became the first state to abolish the death penalty for all crimes except treason. Later, Rhode Island and Wisconsin abolished the death penalty for all crimes. By the end of the century, the world would see the countries of Venezuela, Portugal, Netherlands, Costa Rica, Brazil and Ecuador follow suit (Bohm, 1999 and Schabas, 1997).

Although some U.S. states began abolishing the death penalty, most states held onto capital punishment. Some states made more crimes capital offenses, especially for offenses committed by slaves. In 1838, in an effort to make the death penalty more palatable to the public, some states passed laws against mandatory death sentencing, instead enacting discretionary death penalty statutes. With the exception of a small number of rarely committed crimes in a few jurisdictions, all mandatory capital punishment laws had been abolished by 1963 (Bohm, 1999).

During the Civil War, opposition to the death penalty waned, as more attention was given to the anti-slavery movement. After the war, new developments in the means of executions emerged. The electric chair was introduced at the end of the century. New York built the first electric chair in 1888, and in 1890 executed William Kemmler. Soon, other states adopted this method of execution (Randa, 1997).

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