A Long and Tortured History
1608. George Kendall's execution on charges of spying for Spain is the first recorded in the Colonies.
1612. Virginia enacts the Divine, Moral and Martial Laws, allowing the death penalty for even minor offenses such as stealing grapes.
1907-1917. Nine states abolish or limit the death penalty.
1930s. Executions in the United States reach an average of 167 per year, the highest ever.
1953. Executions average around 100 per year; poll shows 68 percent support for capital punishment.
1966. Death penalty support falls to 42 percent; two executions are the last for more than 10 years.
June 29, 1972. Supreme Court rules that the death penalty, as administered by 35 states, is unconstitutional and suspends its use.
1972. Backlash boosts death penalty support; states move to revise capital punishment statutes.
1976. Supreme Court restores capital punishment.
1977. Gary Gilmore is first person executed in the United States in 10 years.
1977. Lethal injection is first adopted as a method of execution by Oklahoma.
1982. Texas inmate Charles Brooks is the first person executed by lethal injection.
1986. Supreme Court rules that the Eighth Amendment prohibits execution of the insane.
1988. Supreme Court bars executions for crimes committed at age 16 or younger.
1993. Kirk Bloodsworth is the first wrongly convicted death row prisoner to be released based on DNA.
1994. President Clinton signs a law expanding the federal death penalty; public support for death penalty peaks at 80 percent.
1997.Death Penalty Information Center names 69 "innocent" defendants released from death row based on improper convictions or evidence uncovered after their sentencing; the American Bar Association votes to seek a moratorium on capital punishment.
April 1998. Supreme Court rules that a federal appeals court abused its discretion by halting the execution of a rapist and murderer in California and makes it more difficult for judges to delay executions. November 1998. Northwestern University Law School conference on wrongful convictions features more than 30 former death row inmates whose sentences were overturned.
1999. Number of executions peaks at 99, most since 1951.
Jan. 31, 2000. Illinois Gov. George Ryan declares moratorium on state executions, cites risk of executing innocents.
June 11, 2001. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh is put to death; first federal execution since 1963.
2002. Supreme Court rules that juries, not judges, should decide sentence of death.
2003. Governor Ryan grants clemency to 164 Illinois death row inmates before leaving office.
2005. Kenneth Lee Boyd is 1,000th person executed in the United States since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976.
SOURCES: CONGRESSIONAL QUARTERLY; DEATH PENALTY INFORMATION CENTER
This story appears in the May 8, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.