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Wall Street Journal Article on the historical use of the death penalty

Use of Death Penalty Over Decades Points To Conflicted Public
Wall Street Journal, May 7, 2007; Page B1

In March 1935, Mark Shank, 43 years old, was executed in Arkansas for murdering a family of four by giving them poisoned grape juice at a picnic. The following month, William T. De Boe Jr., 23, of Paducah, Ky., was hanged for assaulting a woman; although Kentucky had adopted the electric chair 15 years earlier, crimes against women were still punished on the gallows. The following month, in May 1935, Robert Edwards, 22, was electrocuted in Pennsylvania for the clubbing death of his former sweetheart.

These were three of the 199 people who were hanged, gassed, electrocuted or faced the firing squad in 1935, the peak year of the death penalty in U.S. history. By contrast, last year 53 people were executed in the U.S. -- all but one by lethal injection. Between 1968 and 1976, not a single American was put to death for committing a crime.

A fever chart of executions over three centuries of U.S. history shows a country that has never made up its mind about capital punishment.

The 1930s were a turning point. During the 1920s and early 1930s, Americans were shocked by the spectacular crimes of such "public enemies" as Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson and Ma Barker's gang. In 1932, Charles Lindbergh Jr., son of one of the country's most loved heroes, was snatched from his crib and murdered. The following year, four police officers and their prisoner were gunned down in public in what became known as the Kansas City Massacre.

Even as America was reeling from this crime wave, however, social scientists were developing and publicizing a new theory of criminal behavior: Biological or environmental factors, not just free will, might be at work in a criminal's mind. Was it fair to kill someone for behavior essentially programmed into him or her?

"Capital punishment seals a life that often the culprit could not change if he wanted to," argued John J. Ryan, a New York assemblyman in 1915.

Meanwhile, a growing body of statistics about the deterrent effect of the death penalty was inconclusive and contradictory. One statistic, however, remained painfully obvious: African-Americans were executed at a much higher rate than whites, especially for rape.

Juries' attitudes toward capital punishment slowly began to shift. In the 1930s, an average of 167 people were executed each year; by the 1940s, that had dropped to 128 and by the 1950s to 72 executions a year.

America's first immigrants brought from England a strong faith in the virtue of the death penalty. In 18th-century England, a person could be sentenced to die for some 150 crimes, including forgery and horse theft. The list was much reduced in colonial America, but in theory you could still be put to death for witchcraft, blasphemy or homosexuality. In practice, however, it didn't make economic sense to kill able-bodied men and women when labor was so scarce.

In the mid-19th century, several states abolished the death penalty for all but a few crimes, usually murder and treason. Michigan got rid of the death penalty (except for treason) in 1846, partly as a reaction to the 1830 hanging of Stephen Simmons, who had murdered his wife when he was drunk. When sober, Simmons was a deeply religious man. At his hanging, where a band played to a packed bandstand, he sang a hymn -- "Show Pity, Lord; O Lord, Forgive" -- in his "fine baritone voice," a witness reported.

No reliable death-penalty statistics exist until about 1930, when the Census Bureau began including execution as a cause of death. But historians estimate that in the 1890s, a total of 155 people were executed; by the 1910s, that number had quadrupled, as crime increased and law enforcement got better at catching the culprits.

After World War I and through the 1920s, criminals became better armed, more mobile and more brazen. "Crime is increasing," said President Herbert Hoover in his 1929 inaugural address. "Confidence in rigid and speedy justice is decreasing."

Gradually, both federal and state governments began reinstating the death penalty or increasing the number of crimes that qualified for it. As a result, in the late 1930s, an average of 178 people a year were legally put to death. (Throughout U.S. history, especially in the 19th and early 20th centuries, there were thousands of extralegal executions, especially of African-Americans.) Some historians believe more people were executed in the U.S. in the 1930s than in all of the 17th and 18th centuries.

In 1972, the Supreme Court declared all existing death-penalty statutes unconstitutional, and many states began writing new laws to address the court's concerns. The peak year since 1977, when executions resumed, was in 1999, when 98 people were put to death. Those executed had spent an average of almost 12 years on death row.

The judicial system moved much more swiftly in 1935, when James Trout of Louisville was sentenced to the electric chair for stealing $433 from a local miller. His trial lasted one day; the jury deliberated for two hours and 23 minutes.

Write to Cynthia Crossen at