The introduction of the death penalty in America was influenced by the traditions and laws borrowed by British immigrants from the Old world. According to L. Randa, the first executions in the new colonies was in relation to captain George Kendal in the city of Jamestown in Virginia in 1608 (Randa, 1997). This precedent laid the Foundation of law on the capital punishment in this state. Thomas Jefferson became known as the first reformer of the capital punishment in the United States. Scherdin (2014) concluded that he introduced a bill to revise the laws of Virginia on the capital punishment.
The bill proposed that the capital punishment should be applied only for crimes such as murder and treason. But his legislative initiative was voted down by a margin of just one vote (Bohm, 1999). Abolitionists, beginning from the 18th century tried to ban the capital punishment in the United States, actively using the arguments of Cesare Beccaria, who in the essay “Crime and punishment” denied the right of a state for the death penalty (Beccaria, 1770).
Throughout U.S. history, there have been persistent fluctuations should capital punishment be allowed. So, if in the years of the financial and economic crisis of the 1930-ies were executed more people than ever before in the history of the United States (an average of 167 executions per year), under the influence of an active campaign with support of civil liberties in the 1960-ies, the capital punishment was suspended for almost eight years. The dominating argument of supporters of the capital punishment for many years was the premise of the deterrence of crime, in that time, abolitionists insisted on the protection of human life.
Currently, in the United States the capital punishment exists in 38 States, applies to military and Federal law. Starting from 1982, 111 people have been executed by the Commonwealth of Virginia. All of them were convicted of capital murder (“Death Penalty Focus”, 2016).
According to deathpenaltyinfo.org (2016), Alfredo Prieto was the last person executed in Virginia approximately 10 months and ago. The date of next execution in Virginia is unknown. Ivan Teleguz, whose execution was scheduled for April 13 has been stayed.
A crucial role in the preservation or abolition of the capital punishment in the United States played a case of “Furman V. Georgia”, which was heard in the Supreme court in 1972. Its essence is as follows. Furman got inside the home of a resident of the state of Georgia to rob it and when the house owner saw him, the robber started running away, shot the owner and killed him. At trial, Furman said that the shot was an accident because he hit the trigger. At the preliminary investigation he said he shot deliberately, albeit blindly. In any case, according to the laws of Georgia, as it happened while he was comitting an armed robbery, he was subject to the capital punishment, to which he was sentenced. However, Furman was never executed – he appealed, and it eventually reached the Supreme court. There his case was consolidated with two other similar cases – Jackson v. Georgia and Branch v. Texas (the defendants were not charged with the murders but with rape and were also sentenced to death).
After long discussions from January to June 1972, it was found that there was no agreement on the final decision among the judges. Usually, expressing the position of the Supreme court is assigned to one of the judges, who makes the draft resolution, which bears his name. But in the case of Furman v. Georgia, the position of each of the judges strongly disagreed with other colleagues, and nobody could expect that his project would receive the support of the majority. So, in this case, they had to resort to legal technique called per curiam, that is to the common judgment, which is written by most judges together.
Five votes to four, the Supreme court decided that “the arbitrary and inconsistent imposition of the death penalty violates the Eighth and Fourteenth amendments to the Constitution and is cruel and unusual punishment”(“Furman v. Georgia 408 U.S. 238 (1972)”, 2016). The last definition “cruel and unusual punishment” went to the Eighth amendment from the English bill of rights of 1689, and was repeated in other legislative acts. Thus, the court did not forbid the capital punishment, it determined that current laws and legal procedures contain inconsistencies and ambiguities.
After the judgment in the case “Furman V. Georgia” a moratorium on executions was imposed in the United States. However, a number of States, dissatisfied with this decision, changed their laws to completely exclude all the controversial issues that drew the attention of the Supreme court from procedures of the imposition of the capital punishment. By 1977, some States have been sentencing to death under the new rules. The condemned appealed to the Supreme court and the case has received full name Gregg v. Georgia, Jurek v. Texas, Proffitt v. Florida, Roberts v. Louisiana and Woodson v. North Carolina, and in shortened form it became known as “Gregg V. Georgia”. The decision was rendered on 2 July 1977 (hence among lawyers it is known as the July 2 Cases).
According to this decision “the death penalty does not violate Eighth and Fourteenth amendments unless the jury is entitled with power to cautiously direct and limit the sentencing, and the jury’s decision, in turn, is subjected to full appellate review. In this case, the death sentence may be constitutional. If the death sentence is mandatory and there’s no possibility of mitigation based on the characteristics of the offender, then such provision is unconstitutional” (“Gregg v. Georgia 428 U.S. 153 (1976)”, 2016).
As a consequence, the capital punishment was renewed in the USA. It is still legal in 37 States. Paradoxically, Sam T. Gregg, whose name went down in history, as well as Furman, have not been executed. On the eve of execution, he escaped from prison and was killed in a fight.