Sentenced to Death: The American Novel and Capital Punishment

Sentenced to Death: The American Novel and Capital Punishment

Sentenced to Death: The American Novel and Capital Punishment

Sentenced to Death: The American Novel and Capital Punishment

Synopsis

Literature that spotlights real-life punitive justice in America.

Excerpt

Capital punishment in the United States has undergone a series of drastic transformations in the twentieth century. In 1900, executions were relatively frequent. People were executed for a relatively wide variety of crimes. In the first three decades of the century the nation executed, on average, more than 100 people per year. The figure rose, reaching a peak of 199 in 1935. Most of those executed were convicted killers, but some had committed rape, armed robbery, kidnapping, and even burglary.

Over the next three decades, the death penalty was used with decreasing frequency and was restricted, in practice and sometimes in the statutes, to fewer and fewer crimes. In the midsixties executions dwindled and ceased: there were forty-two in 1961, seven in 1965, and two in 1967. In 1965, too, for the first time all of those executed were convicted murderers. Thereafter for almost a decade the death penalty went unused, but since 1977 there has been a rapid expansion in the population on Death Row and a gradual but accelerating rise in the annual number of executions. In 1977, there were just over 400 people on Death Row nationwide; today the figure is above 2,700. Execution now appears to be reserved for murderers, but annual totals for executions are once again approaching the 100 mark.

The advance, retreat, transformation, and return of capital punishment have to some extent been dictated by the courts but have also reflected fluctuations in public attitudes toward the death penalty and public understanding of it. Occasionally, for example, there has been a surge in popular support for its abolition; between 1907 and 1917, nine states passed legislation abolishing the death penalty com-

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