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Capital Punishment in the United States Explained

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In our Explainer series, Fair Punishment Project lawyers help unpackage some of the most complicated issues in the criminal justice system. We break down the problems behind the headlines - like bail, civil asset forfeiture, or the Brady doctrine - so that everyone can understand them. Wherever possible, we try to utilize the stories of those affected by the criminal justice system to show how these laws and principles should work, and how they often fail. We will update our Explainers monthly to keep them current. Read our updated explainer here.
To beat the clock on the expiration of its lethal injection drug supply, this past April, Arkansas tried to execute 8 men over 1 days. The stories told in frantic legal filings and clemency petitions revealed a deeply disturbing picture. Ledell Lee may have had an intellectual disability that rendered him constitutionally ineligible for the death penalty, but he had a spate of bad lawyers who failed to timely present evidence of this claim -…

History of Death Penalty for Juvenile Offenders

George Stinney Jr. was electrocuted in South Carolina when he was 14.
George Stinney Jr. was electrocuted in South Carolina when he was 14. He died
less than 3 months after his arrest for allegedly murdering two white girls. His
trial took a day. An all-white jury deliberated 10 minutes. He was posthumously
exonerated by a South Carolina court  in 2014. Read more.
In 1642, Thomas Granger, 16, was hanged in Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts, for having sex with a mare, a cow and some goats. It was America’s first documented execution of a child offender and the debut of the juvenile death penalty. The practice would end 363 years later after the deaths of at least 366 child offenders — people under the age of 18 at the time of their crime.

The youngest girl to be executed was 12-year-old Hannah Ocuish, a Native American child who was hanged in Connecticut in 1786 for murdering a 6-year-old white girl.

James Arcene, a Cherokee, was the youngest ever to be condemned. He was hanged in Arkansas in 1885 for a murder-robbery he helped commit when he was 10. The execution came 13 years later (not out of deference for his young age, but because it took that long for lawmen to arrest him).

Others were rushed to their deaths.

In 1944, African-American George Stinney Jr. was electrocuted in South Carolina when he was 14, making him the youngest person executed in the 20th century.

Stinney died less than three months after his arrest for allegedly murdering two white girls in small-town South Carolina. His trial took a day. An all-white jury deliberated 10 minutes before finding him guilty. His lawyer didn’t file an appeal. (In 2014, a South Carolina court took the remarkable step of exonerating him posthumously, finding that he’d suffered an egregious miscarriage of justice.)

In 1964, Texas executed African-American youth James Echols — the last teen to get the death penalty for rape. Echols’ victim was a white woman. He was put to death at 19, two years after the crime.

After Echols’ execution, laws allowing the penalty stayed on the books but weren’t used for the next 21 years. Capital punishment’s popularity was waning. States held back from imposing it, waiting to see how court challenges would resolve arguments that it was unconstitutional.

By 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Furman v. Georgia largely agreed. Death sentences for all age groups were imposed so arbitrarily — so “wantonly” and “freakishly” as Justice Potter Stewart put it — that they violated the Eighth Amendment, the court held. The ruling in effect struck down all death penalty statutes as they then existed, but it allowed states an opportunity to craft new, less discriminatory laws.

More than 30 states enacted statutes that would pass judicial muster. The modern era of the death penalty began. By 1974, teenagers once again arrived on death row.


Source: Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, Amy Linn, Feb. 13, 2016

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