Capital Punishment in the United States Explained

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 -…

A century of death: 196 executions, 15 governors, and Arkansas’ deadliest day

Arkansas' Death Chamber
Arkansas' Death Chamber
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (TALK BUSINESS & POLITICS) -- On July 25, 1902, Arkansas sent six men to the gallows — Lathe Hembree, Dee Noland, Tom Simms, Dave McWhirter, Jim Johnson, and Cy Tanner, or, as the July 26 edition of the Arkansas Gazette put it, “four negroes and two white men.”

Almost 115 years later, the state of Arkansas has planned eight executions over a 10-day period in April marking an end to a 12-year dormancy brought on in part by a 2012 Arkansas Supreme Court decision that ruled the death penalty unconstitutional as currently practiced. Lawmakers have since worked out the kinks, and death row prisoners Don Davis and Bruce Ward will face lethal injection — the state’s method of execution — on April 17.

Robert Dunham, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center, recently told Talk Business & Politics the volume of planned executions are “unprecedented” in the modern era. It isn’t wrong when you distinguish what the “modern era” is. But the rapid administration of sentences now less than one month away is hardly unprecedented when looking at Arkansas’ capital punishment history.

The July 25, 1902 executions were carried out in the cities of Washington, Chester Point, Arkansas City, Forrest City, and Van Buren, according to the Arkansas Gazette, which was obtained from Arkansas State Archives in Little Rock. Lauren Jarvis, archival manager for public services at the agency, could not verify whether the day was the deadliest in the state’s capital punishment history as “we do not have a comprehensive list of executions prior to 1913” and she did not know “of another department that has created a comprehensive list for this time period.”

The Archive’s records end in 1964 while the Death Penalty Information Center has information from 1977 forward. The Arkansas Department of Corrections also has a listing that combines the two along with current death row inmates, but it does not have anything prior to when the so-called “modern era” of when executions began. There are lists of executions in Arkansas online that date back to 1901, “but there is not a lot of information” provided on the websites, and “I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the data,” Jarvis said. (For example, The Death Penalty USA website shows seven hangings on July 25, 1902, with James Kitts, a black man convicted of murder, also hanged in Desha County.)


Arkansas has endorsed the death penalty for the better part of 200 years. Incorporated as a state in 1836, executions were already present during the American Revolution with several members of the garrison at Arkansas Post convicted of having plotted on behalf of the English to massacre all soldiers stationed there. The conspirators were executed by firing squad on an undisclosed date in New Orleans.

For several decades prior to the modern era (which began in 1913), executions were carried out in the counties where the crimes occurred. Fort Smith-based “Hangin'” Judge Isaac Parker, who ruled as a federal judge for the Western District of Arkansas starting in 1875, was one of the most prolific facilitators of the death penalty, sentencing 160 to death during his tenure. About half (79) were carried out. 

The old way continued with brief overlaps to the modern era. The last to be executed in the county system was John Arthur Tillman for killing his girlfriend, tossing her in a well, and trying to conceal her body with stones. He was hanged at the Paris jail in Logan County on July 15, 1914.

The end of this system was brought on by the Arkansas General Assembly. Disturbed by the high death rates associated with convict labor, lawmakers began a penitentiary reform effort that would, among other things, centralize executions at the State Penitentiary in Little Rock. 

On Sept. 9, 1913, a 21-year-old black male named Lee Sims — the first under the modern death row system — was executed for the crime of rape. He was also the first to die in the electric chair and was followed there on Dec. 12 of that year by another black male, 19-year-old Ed King. With few exceptions, the electric chair would be the state’s official method of execution until 1990.

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Source: KATV Little Rock, April 2, 2017

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