There’s a fascinating story on the front page of The New York Times this morning about two men who led the right for toughening the death penalty in California back in 1978 — and now regret it. It’s been an up-and-down past few months in America on this issue, ranging from the debate over the execution of Troy Davis to other state murders halted or death row prisoners released due to questions about evidence and guilt.
With polls showing that roughly six in ten Americans still support capital punishment in the United States (even with that number declining somewhat) it’s hard to make the case that the practice will be abolished any time soon. But I’ve argued otherwise, pointing to support dropping to under 50 percent when life without parole is listed as an option, and the continuing fall in the number of executions in America.
Still, most in the media find the end of executions in the United States a farfetched dream. I’d guess that most probably are not even aware that the death penalty was once banned in America—and not so long ago. And it happened rather suddenly and unexpectedly. I write about it in my current e-book, Dead Reckoning, on the history of capital punsihment in America up to the present day, but here is a summary.
There was no one event or factor that caused it. Yes, there were several notable cases in the 1950s that sparked protest, including the Rosenbergs and Caryl Chessman (left). In 1959, Susan Hayward won an Academy Award for her portrayal of a condemned murderess in I Want to Live, based on the true story of Barbara Graham. The film concluded with a graphic and troubling depiction of the woman’s execution in the San Quentin gas chamber.
Pope Pius XII offered only a timid plea for “charity” in the Chessman case, but even that was breakthrough for Catholics, a “tentative step on the road to recovering the pastoral practice of St. Augustine, disapproving all executions, and especially those based on political motives,” James Mcgivern wrote in his book on this subject. Chessman’s pleas for a new trial inspired the first mainstream churches, such as the Methodists, to join the so-called “peace” churches in taking a stand against capital punishment.
By the end of the 1960s, the Methodists were joined in the abolitionist camp by the American Baptists, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Lutheran Church, the National Council of Churches (but not the Catholic Church). Hawaii and Alaska entered the union abolitionist. Oregon and Iowa, which had gone abolitionist once before—only to reinstate the death penalty—now banned executions once again. Delaware outlawed executions in 1958, but then, following outrage over a brutal murder in the state, reinstituted it in 1961.
More nations abolished executions. In 1955, Arthur Koestler had observed that Great Britain “is that peculiar country in Europe where people drive on the left side of the road, measure inches in yards, and hang people by the neck until dead,” a practice he likened to “a slightly off-color family joke.” Ten years later, England suspended the practice as an experiment; for years later it decided to make the ban permanent.