By Bill Pesch
Originally published by Pacific Daily News on August 2nd, 2015
The historic roots of capital punishment in America date back to the colonial period. The first recorded execution took place in 1608, when Captain George Kendall was executed by a firing squad for mutiny.
At the outbreak of the Revolutionary War in 1775, all 13 colonies had the death penalty. In 1787, the newly formed United States of America established a constitution that acknowledged the death penalty.
The Fifth, Eighth, and 10th Amendments have all been interpreted by various courts to support capital punishment and to allow each state to decide whether or not to use the death penalty. In 1790, the First Congress passed the Punishment of Crimes Act making certain federal crimes punishable by death. The crimes included treason, counterfeiting, murder, robbery, among others. The first federal execution occurred on June 25, 1790, in Massachusetts.
M. Watt Epsy Jr. and John Ortiz Smykla spent 32 years assembling information on the history of state-sanctioned executions in America from 1608 through 2002. To say the least, their findings are fascinating. At times they are also quite disturbing. Let’s take a look at some of the statistical highlights.
Over the 394 years covered by the study, there were a total of 15,269 executions at both the state and federal levels. The racial breakdown was as follows: 50.5 percent black; 43.5 percent white, 2.5 percent Hispanic; 2.5 percent Native American; 1 percent Asian.
The top five occupations of those executed were: 11.5 percent slaves; 3.8 percent general laborers; 2.4 percent farmhands; 2.2 percent farmers; and 1.1 percent farm laborers. Among other occupations the list includes 118 soldiers, 92 seamen, 68 pirates, 50 housewives, 31 clergy/preachers, 19 doctors, 12 attorneys, and 11 policemen.
The breakdown of the top five crimes committed is as follows: 81.8 percent murder; 6.7 percent rape; 1.9 percent slave revolt; 1.7 percent home break-in; 1.1 percent robberies. Other noteworthy crimes included piracy, arson, horse stealing, forgery, aiding a runaway slave, concealing a birth and adultery.
The manner of the executions between the years 1608 through 2002 were: 61.3 percent hanged; 29 percent electrocuted; 4.1 percent lethal injection; 4 percent gas chamber; 1 percent firing squad; 0.4 percent burned; 0.1 percent bludgeoned on wheel; and 0.1 percent gibbeted/hanged in chains. One person was pressed between two heavy objects.
To give you an idea of how the manner of executions has changed over the years, between the years 1900 to 1999 the breakdown is: 53.6 percent electrocution; 33.4 percent hanged; 7.3 percent gas chamber; 5.3 percent lethal injection; and 0.4 percent firing squad.
Of the 15,269 people executed, the ages of 7,311 were recorded and were: 44 percent 20 to 29; 27.5 percent 30 to 39; 13.5 percent 40 to 49; 8 percent 12 to 19; 5.2 percent 50 to 59; .3 percent 70 to 79. Two individuals between the ages of 80 to 89 were executed. Of those executed 97.6 percent were men and 2.4 percent were women.
The statistical breakdown for the five states that executed the most prisoners during the 394 years is: Virginia 1,361; New York 1,130; Pennsylvania 1,043; Texas 1,031; and Georgia 976.
To indicate more current trends, between the years 1992 to 2002 the breakdown for the five states that executed the most prisoners is: Texas 238; Virginia 73; Missouri 50; Oklahoma 50; Florida 27.
The racial breakdown of those executed by the five states that executed the most prisoners is as follows:
Virginia: 82.2 percent black; 16 percent white; .5 Hispanic; 0.2 percent Native American; 1.1 percent unknown
New York: 68.8 percent white; 20.1 percent black; 1.8 percent Hispanic; 0.9 percent Asian; 0.7 percent Native American; 8 percent unknown
Pennsylvania: 65.5 percent white; 21.2 percent black; o.3 percent Asian; 0.35 Native American; 12.2 percent unknown
Texas: 52.9 percent black; 33.9 percent white; 10 percent Hispanic; 0.5 percent Native American; 0.2 percent Asian; 1.6 percent unknown
Georgia; 75.25 black; 22.8 percent white; 0.6 percent Native American; 1.4 percent unknown.
The June 8 edition of Time ran an article on capital punishment that provides some updated information. The vast majority of states, 32, still permit capital punishment. However, from Jan. 1, 2014, up through June 8, 2015, only five states carried out the 49 executions. The list includes Texas, Missouri, Florida, Oklahoma and Georgia.
The process of determining guilt and executing an inmate is very slow. Of the 14 people executed between Jan. 1, 2015 and June 8, 2015, five were on death row 20 to 30 years, five others from 15 to 19 years, and the remaining four for at least 10 years.
The year 2014 witnessed the fewest number of executions in 20 years.
Although there are 60 inmates on federal death row, only three federal prisoners have been executed over the past 50 years. The last federal execution took place 12 years ago.
Since 1975, because of improved scientific testing, more than 150 prisoners sitting on death row have been exonerated and set free.
According to a 2014 Time poll, 63 percent of Americans continue to support the death penalty while 33 percent oppose it.
Bill Pesch is a family law attorney with the Guam Family Law Office in Hagåtña. You can contact him through his website: GuamFamilyLawOffice.com.