History of the Death Penalty

Death-Penalty Experts Describe Justice Kennedy's Mixed Legacy on Capital Punishment

Justice Anthony Kennedy's votes swung both to the right and to the left on death-penalty issues, professors Carol Steiker (pictured, l.) of Harvard Law School and her brother, Jordan Steiker (pictured, r.) of the University of Texas School of Law write in a commentary for SCOTUSblog, "but [he] declined to swing for the fences." The Steikers, who co-authored the acclaimed book, Courting Death: The Supreme Court and Capital Punishment, recount Justice Kennedy's nuanced interpretation of the Eighth Amendment and his mixed legacy as a swing vote on capital punishment. Though he was "a frequent supporter of restrictions on the availability of federal habeas review of capital cases, a skeptic of claims challenging the constitutionality of lethal injection and a relatively reliable vote against granting stays of execution in end-stage capital litigation," they write, he also was "the author of numerous opinions that broke new ground in the court’s Eighth Amendment jurisprudence." Most notably, he joined or authored landmark decisions that narrowed the scope of the death penalty, exempting defendants with intellectual disability, juvenile offenders, and those who committed non-homicide crimes. Those decisions on the Court's "proportionality doctrine" had systemic impact on the administration of the death penalty nationwide and paved the way for later decisions banning the use of mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles. However, Justice Kennedy was content to grapple with the constitutionality of individual death-penalty practices one at a time, rather than addressing the constitutionality of capital punishment as a whole. Kennedy's role as a swing vote is illustrated by his change of heart on guarantees of individualized sentencing. In his early days on the Court, he voted to restrict defendants' rights to the consideration of mitigating evidence that could spare their lives, but nearly 20 years later, as the Court as a whole moved ideologically to the right, he shifted leftwards and joined majority opinions that broadly protected the rights to present and have capital sentencers meaningfully consider that evidence. In 1989, he provided the fifth vote in Stanford v. Kentucky to permit the use of the death penalty against offenders aged sixteen and seventeen. By 2005, citing an evolution of values in the United States, he authored the Court's 5-4 decision in Roper v. Simmons banning the death penalty for offenders under age eighteen. In 2015, Kennedy started an important discussion of the conditions of incarceration on death row, raising questions about the effects of long-term solitary confinement. Justice Stephen Breyer drew on Kennedy's concerns in his dissent in Glossip v. Gross, questioning the constitutionality of capital punishment.

New Podcast: Professor Carol Steiker on the History and Future of America’s Death Penalty

Harvard Law Professor Carol Steiker (pictured), co-author of the highly acclaimed book, Courting Death: The Supreme Court and Capital Punishment, joins DPIC’s Robin Konrad for a provocative discussion of the past and future of America’s death penalty. In the latest episode of Discussions with DPIC, Professor Steiker—who served as a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall—takes us inside the walls of the Court for insights on the justices’ approaches to capital-punishment jurisprudence and the impact of Justice Marshall’s legacy on the Court today. She describes her experience with death-penalty cases as a U.S. Supreme Court clerk, and talks about the recurring evolution of the justices’ views on the death penalty as they experience years of failed attempts to redress its systemic flaws. In putting the modern death penalty in context, Professor Steiker focuses particularly on the relationship between race and capital punishment. “Today’s death penalty,” she says, “is inextricably tied to a history of slavery, of lynching, of progressive anti-lynching support of the death penalty. Those are the waves of history that are still lapping at the shore of the present.” The legacy of that history, she says, continues to be felt in the overwhelmingly disproportional use of capital punishment by the states of the former Confederacy, as compared to the rest of the country, and the disparate pursuit and imposition of the death penalty in cases involving White victims. Steiker identifies systemic problems in today’s death penalty that she says could some day lead the U.S. Supreme Court to declare it unconstitutional, including the politicization of judges and prosecutors and the “abysmal” state of capital representation. When and if abolition occurs, she says, will depend ultimately on the composition of the Court.

From Slavery to the Death Penalty: New Museum and Memorial for Peace and Justice Open in Montgomery, Alabama

On April 26, 2018, the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) opened the Memorial for Peace and Justice and its accompanying Legacy Museum, which tell the stories of the more than 4,000 men, women, and children killed by racial terror lynchings in the century following the Civil War, and trace the connections between slavery, segregation, capital punishment, and mass incarceration. The opening drew thousands of visitors from across the country, theatrical headliners, and a host of civil rights legends—including Congressman John Lewis and the surviving plaintiffs and lawyer who brought the lawsuit that ended segregated seating on public buses. The memorial and museum arose out of the criminal defense work of the Equal Justice Initiative and its founder, Bryan Stevenson, first representing indigent prisoners on Alabama’s death row and later expanding to fight juvenile life sentences and other manifestations of mass incarceration. Stevenson said, “It really springs from that experience of representing people in courts and beginning to see the limits of how committed our courts are to eradicating discrimination and bias. I want to get to the point where we experience something more like freedom. … I don’t think we are going to get there until we create a new consciousness about our history.” EJI’s research on lynchings, including the 2015 report, Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror, shows a clear link between lynchings and the death penalty. Counties and regions that today carry out the most executions are the same places in which lynchings were most likely to take place, and the ongoing racial bias in the application of the death penalty reflects the legacy of racial terror lynchings. “[I] believe that capital punishment is the stepchild of lynching,” Stevenson said. “It was disproportionately used against people of color; it still continues to be shaped primarily by race.” As America’s global allies pressured the country to end lynchings after World War II, Stevens said, “lynchings moved inside. We still executed mostly black people after proceedings that were unreliable and unfair. We promised ‘swift justice,’ which was intended to be the same thing as lynching without the spectacle, without the optic, without the mob.” Stevenson said he was motivated to create the memorial and museum because a discussion of the past is necessary to create a more just and equal society. “We haven’t created spaces in this country that tell the history of racial inequality, of slavery, of lynching, of segregation that motivate people to say, ‘Never again,’” he said.

History of Lynchings of Mexican Americans Provides Context for Recent Challenges to U.S. Death Penalty

From 1846 to 1870, more than 100 men and women were hanged on the branches of the notorious "Hanging Tree" in Goliad, Texas. Many were Mexicans or Mexican Americans and many were killed by lynching. In a November 25 op-ed in the San Antonio Express-News, historian Alfredo Torres, Jr. writes that these public killings are a reminder that "the noose, [which] has been identified as emblematic of violence and oppression toward African-Americans, [is] often overlooked as a symbol of terror for Mexican-Americans." Torres says that no region experienced more lynchings of Mexican Americans than Southern Texas, and the public spectacles on the Goliad County Courthouse lawn (pictured), now an historic landmark and tourist attraction, were witnessed by Anglo families "in a carnival-like atmosphere, bringing picnic baskets and taking photos." Lynchings of more than 871 Mexican Americans are documented across 13 Western and Southwestern states after the Civil War. But Torres says "these numbers don’t compare to what was done in Texas," where historians William D. Carrigan and Clive Webb estimate that more than 5,000 Mexican Americans were murdered between 1910 to 1920. That wave of terror included numerous extra-judicial lynchings and murders of Mexican Americans by vigilantes, local law-enforcement officers, and Texas Rangers. Texas A & M-Kingsville journalism professor Manuel Flores wrote in an October 2017 column in the Corpus Cristi Caller-Times that the death and legend of Josefa “Chipita” Rodriguez—framed for the 1863 ax murder of a White cotton merchant and horse trader in what was still Confederate Texas—symbolizes the racial violence against Mexican Americans in the state and "are as pertinent to the state of Texas as that of the Alamo and Goliad stories." Rodriguez was falsely accused of murder and the theft of $600 after the dismembered body of John Savage was found on the banks of the river near her traveler's lodge. Though there was no evidence of her involvement in the murder and she insisted “No soy culpable" ("I'm not guilty"), she was quickly tried, sentenced, and hanged. In 1985, the Texas Legislature adopted a resolution absolving Rodríguez of the murder, and Gov. Mark White signed the resolution, posthumously pardoning her on June 13, 1985. Cardigan and Webb say that widespread lynchings of Mexican Americans persisted into the 1920s, "eventually declining largely because of pressure from the Mexican government." Issues of racial bias against Mexicans and others of Latino descent in the administration of the death penalty in the U.S. persist. 122 Latino prisoners have been executed in the United States since 1985. Texas has carried out 84.4% of those executions (103), including the controversial execution of Mexican national Ruben Ramírez Cárdenas on November 8, in violation of international treaty obligations to have permitted him to obtain consular assistance from his government. 373 Latino/a prisoners are on state or federal death rows across the United States, with three-quarters sentenced to death in California (188), Texas (67), or Arizona (27). A challenge to the constitutionality of Arizona's death penalty, filed by Abel Daniel Hidalgo, is currently pending in the U.S. Supreme Court. His petition presents evidence that in Arizona, "a Hispanic man accused of killing a white man is 4.6 times as likely to be sentenced to death as a white man accused of killing a Hispanic victim." The Court will consider during its December 1 conference meeting whether to accept Hidalgo's case for review.

Pioneers in Efforts to Defend Death-Penalty Cases, End Capital Punishment Remembered in New Book, Obituary

The legacies of Scharlette Holdman (pictured) and Marie Deans—two women who changed the landscape of capital punishment in the United States—are memorialized in a recent story in the Marshall Project and a new book scheduled for release in August. Maurice Chammah's article, We Saw Monsters. She Saw Humans, marks the July 12, 2017 passing of mitigation pioneer Scharlette Holdman and tells the story of her forty-year fight on behalf of capital defendants and death-row prisoners. The forthcoming book by Todd Peppers and Margaret Anderson, A Courageous Fool, tells the story of a similarly pioneering woman, Marie Deans, who long worked to save defendants and prisoners facing the death penalty and whose efforts to give voice to family members, like herself, whose relatives had been murdered, led to the creation of Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation. Holdman used her background in anthropology to develop the practice of death-penalty mitigation—conducting a multi-generational social history investigation to tell the story of a client's life in a way that would humanize him or her to a jury or a judge. “What she saw is that killers are not just born,” said lawyer George Kendall, who represents death-row prisoners. “They have had unbelievably abused and neglectful lives, and that history is relevant. You become your client’s biographer, you speak to the 60 most important people in that person’s life—friend and foe.” She approached this difficult work with creativity and humor. In one case, she attempted to discredit a psychiatrist's testimony that a severely impaired defendant was competent to be executed because he had beaten the doctor at tic-tac-toe, by locating a tic-tac-toe playing chicken to present in court. The judge “felt that bringing the chicken into the courtroom to play tic-tac-toe would degrade the dignity of the court,” Holdman later told This American Life. “I thought that the dignity of the court was degraded by executing a mentally retarded, mentally ill person.” In 2011, she described mitigation investigations, saying, “As we in local communities began to look for mitigation, we saw it as presenting the narrative of someone’s life, and we became acutely aware that it was a very specialized, complex undertaking. That narrative is not there for the asking. It requires not just knowledge and skill but experience in how you search for, identify, locate, recognize, and preserve the information.” Her work was profiled in the book Among the Lowest of the Dead, an account of Florida's reinstatement of the death penalty. A Courageous Fool describes the work of mitigation expert and anti-death penalty activist Marie Deans to defend death-sentenced prisoners, to free the wrongfully convicted—including Virginia death-row exoneree Earl Washington—and to try to end the death penalty. Virginia Senator Mark Warner called A Courageous Fool, "A powerful story of a Virginia heroine." Deans passed away in 2011. 

Journal of Psychiatrist Who Presided Over 14 Texas Executions Reveals Mental Toll That May Have Contributed to Suicide

As a psychiatrist in the Wayne Unit of Texas' Huntsville prison from 1960 to 1963, Dr. Lee Hartman presided over 14 electric-chair executions. When his grandson, Ben Hartman, a journalist, began investigating Dr. Hartman's life, he discovered journals that chronicle those executions and the psychological toll they took, possibly contributing to Dr. Hartman's suicide in 1964. Dr. Hartman's journals contain basic data on the men who were executed, including their names, race, a summary of the crime, and notes on the execution itself. More profoundly, though, they capture Dr. Hartman's reactions to his experiences and how they shaped his views on the death penalty, leaving him—in his grandson's words—"a determined opponent of capital punishment." In 1962, Dr. Hartman wrote, "The death penalty is irreparable." After the highly-publicized execution of Howard Stickney, a 24-year old who professed his innocence, Dr. Hartman wrote, "Very shook up and angry over whole cruel mess." He had been with Stickney on his scheduled November 10, 1961 execution date as they neared the door to the execution chamber. The journal reports that the phone rang at 12:32 a.m. with news that a judge had granted a 10-day stay of execution. This was "[a]pparently a complete surprise to Stickney," the journal entry says, "who broke down, prayed and wept.” In May of 1962, still professing his innocence, Stickney exhibited "[d]ignity and grace, shook hands with several guards while waiting, didn’t want to take coat off.” The journal reports: "At 12:24, warden returned–no stay, Stickney quietly sat in chair." Three separate jolts of electric current were sent through his body, "1st shock at 12:25–dead at 12:30.” Elsewhere in the journal, Dr. Hartman wrote 19 pages on arguments for and against capital punishment, clearly setting out his views. “The death penalty has a brutalizing and sadistic influence on the community that deliberately kills a member of its group,” he wrote, permitting the public “to vicariously indulge in vicious and inhumane fantasies under socially-acceptable guises.” He wrote: "The death penalty is not applied impartially. There is such surfeit of these cases that to mention them would be redundant. The poor defendant is obviously at a disadvantage and frequently receives the extreme penalty while the wealthier accused escapes a prison term. There is well known discrimination on racial or class lines." Dr. Hartman struggled with depression for many years, spending several months in a mental hospital after working in the prison. In 1964, he committed suicide by taking an overdose of pentobarbital, a drug now used to execute prisoners in Texas.

Equal Justice Initiative Report on Lynchings Outside the Deep South Suggests Links to Capital Punishment

Lynching has long been regarded as a regional phenomenon, but in an updated edition of its landmark 2015 report "Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror," the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) has now documented more than 300 lynchings of African Americans in states outside the Deep South. "Racial terror lynching was a national problem," said EJI Director Bryan Stevenson (pictured). More than six million African American migrants fled "as refugees and exiles from terror in the American South," but the racial terror often followed them. "Hundreds of lynchings took place outside the American South," he said. The original EJI lynching report documented more than 4000 racial terror lynchings in 12 Southern states, and described the historical link between lynching and the modern-day death penalty. The new edition tracks lynchings in eight states in the Midwest and Upper South: Oklahoma (76), Missouri (60), Illinois (56), West Virginia (35), Maryland (28), Kansas (19), Indiana (18), and Ohio (15). The pattern of lynchings suggests a continuing link to modern capital punishment: Oklahoma and Missouri rank second and fifth in the number of executions in the U.S. in the last fifty years and have executed far more prisoners than any other states outside the Deep South. Working with Google, EJI has created an interactive website providing audio, video, and maps to tell the stories of the victims of racial terror and illuminate the geographic patterns of lynching. “These lynchings were intentionally barbaric, torturous, gruesome,” Stevenson said, and often whole communities actively participated in the public spectacle. "Our collective failure to acknowledge this history has created a contemporary political culture that doesn't adequately value the victimization of people of color today," he said. In an interview with The Washington Post, Stevenson explained how the legacy of lynching affects today's criminal justice system, and the death penalty in particular. When the U.S. Supreme Court upheld capital punishment in 1976, Justice Potter Stewart justified capital punishment as an advance from "self-help, vigilante justice, and lynch law." “They started trying people inside." Stevenson said, "and they had the same kind of unreliable verdicts and the same kind of death sentencing and the same kind of abuse of people of color in the courtroom that existed outside the courthouse during the lynching era."

BOOKS: "The History of the Death Penalty in Colorado"

When University of Colorado Boulder sociology professor Michael Radelet began doing research on the death penalty in the 1970s, the noted death-penalty scholar tells Colorado Public Radio, he didn't have an opinion about capital punishment and "didn't know anything about it." After researching issues of race, innocence, and the death penalty, he came to have grave reservations. "I believe the death penalty is about making god-like decisions without god-like accuracy," he told Colorado Matters interviewer Andrea Dukakis. Radelet's latest book, The History of the Death Penalty in Colorado, chronicles the historic use of capital punishment in a state in which the practice is currently under scrutiny. Proponents and opponents of the death penalty both invoke "justice" in support of their positions, Radelet told Colorado Matters. "There's a debate about what 'justice' really means," he said, noting that Governor John Hickenlooper raised important questions about the fairness and accuracy of the death penalty when he imposed a moratorium on executions in Colorado in 2013. Commenting on the book, Hickenlooper said, "Professor Radelet reminds us we are not unique in asking whether our 'experiment with the death penalty' has worked: we have asked this question since our territorial days. The History of the Death Penalty is an insightful examination of the death penalty and whether it has a place in our state." Radelet's book documents each execution in the state since 1859 and explores the systemic concerns that have affected its implementation throughout Colorado's history. A Denver Post book review says: "In what could have been a dismal treatise, Radelet turns this fact-filled book into an absorbing history of Colorado’s flirtation with legal killing."

Pages