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Timeline of Death Penalty

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A Brief History of Capital Punishment in the United States

The first death penalty statutes are recorded in the New World.

Michigan becomes the first English-speaking territory in the world to abolish the death penalty, excluding cases of treason.

From 1930 to 1939, 1,667 people are executed, more than in any other decade.

Public opinion turns against the death penalty. While 40 states authorize capital punishment, by 1967 executions virtually cease.

June 29, 1972
In Furman v. Georgia, the U.S. Supreme Court rules 5-4 that the arbitrary application of the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment, and therefore unconstitutional.

July 2,1976
The Supreme Court votes 7-2 to reinstate the death penalty in Gregg v. Georgia.

January 17, 1977
Gary Gilmore becomes the first person executed in 10 years.

June 29, 1977
The Supreme Court votes 7-2 in Coker v. Georgia that use of the death penalty in rape cases is disproportionate to the crime, and therefore unconstitutional.

DNA testing is first used as evidence in court to exonerate a condemned prisoner.

June 11, 2001
Oklahoma City Federal Building bomber Timothy McVeigh is the first federal prisoner executed in 38 years.

June 20, 2002
The Supreme Court rules 6-3 in Atkins v. Virginia that executing the mentally retarded is unconstitutional.

October 21, 2002
In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court refuses to reexamine whether executing killers who were under 18 when they committed their crimes is constitutional. The US, along with Somalia, is one of the last remaining countries in the world where it is legal to execute juveniles.

January 11, 2003
Republican Governor George Ryan grants blanket clemency to all 167 people on death row in Illinois, commuting their sentences to life without parole.

Worldwide, 115 countries have abolished the death penalty. The US lags behind only China and Iran in the number of executions carried out.