By Linrui Jin | March 1, 2021


The social agreement between average residents and power holders is such that they surrender a portion of freedom in exchange for security. To ensure that people enjoy such, the authorities detain and isolate offenders; still, some of the detained have been sentenced to death after committing atrocities that make their incarceration impossible, let alone their release and reintegration into society. The United States is one of the nations known for its extensive capital punishment traditions, of which one is the excessive presence of black people on death row that is not proportional to their share in the U.S. population and contribution to the criminogenic status quo. That is why the project seeks to study whether the current trend of black discrimination in the way of capital punishment is but an extension of the earlier death penalty trend. Additionally, the goals are to study the historical and modern trends of women’s capital punishment and the methods employed to put people to death in the U.S. Overall, the U.S. death penalty phenomenon reflects deep-seated trends with regard to minority defendants, women, and even execution tools.

The Historical Perspective

The small percentage of Capitally punished Black people in the 17th century

In the 17th century, the majority of those punished capitally were white residents, about 60%. By contrast, African Americans were accountable for just 7% of the overall number of those put to death. Another source pointed to the greater share of black capital sentences which does not come close to matching that of white residents’ death penalty episodes. In 1608-1699, 18 black people and 100 white people were put to death. Not being the origin residents of the U.S., black slaves were not a part of the criminal justice system as white landlords could kill them for what they believed deserved punishing capitally, without a crime being recorded, even less submitted for judicial consideration. Pinalez confirmed the killing liberalism enjoyed by white people. During the era of slavery, for a white slave owner to kill a black slave was not deemed a crime. This status of non-whites in the society and the judicial system of the country could have led to there being few currently surviving sets of data on the actual scope of death penalties applied to black slaves. Although records on crimes and punishments can be destroyed by the wartime damage and other factors, the marginal status of African Americans may arguably be a proper explanation of the mostly white profile of the executed.

the 18th century change in the racial composition of those punished

Overall, in 1700-1749 and 1750-1700, 338 and 911 males respectively were executed (see Figure 1). Between 1696 and 1785, slightly more African Americans were sentenced to death relative to white Americans. A greater contrast would now make itself seen that white people had been executed in numbers during the years of the revolution. Apparently, the slave population did not pose as much danger to the British crown as white people did since they chose to secede from the British and fought them on the battlefield. However, the British, who put Americans to death after capturing them in an effort to punish and demoralize the population by leaving bodies hanging for everyone’s discretion, probably were not alone in killing whom they regarded as culprits. Put otherwise, there is the probability of Americans having killed their own for disciplinary purposes, as there is much room for desertion at a time of a military conflict, especially if enrollment is performed through conscription.

Figure 1. Image by Britannica ProCon, via

Ward confirmed the presence of the compulsory mechanism that got Americans to join the army ranks while Fantina reported that the Revolutionary War period saw desertion laws enforced. The punishment mechanism was far from detailed. Rather, it was up to the court-martial to decide whether to apply a specific punishment to deserters. Execution could not be applied unless necessitated by three types of offenses, including forcing a post commander to surrender to the enemy, disclosing the watchword to anyone not empowered to obtain it, or leaving a post and/or encouraging others to do so.

The Post-Revolutionary Period Witnesses a Greater Number of Black Death Penalties

Atwell noted that American colonists had composed a longer list of capital crimes as part of the slave codes governing the institution of slavery. To strike a white citizen, to encourage others to run away, to commit an arson targeting property, and to administer medicine earned African Americans a death sentence. Based on the laws of slavery, slaves owed their master unconditional obedience that could be enforced via fear and a physical penalty, death included. The maintenance of the slavery system boiled down to balancing between the financial loss and the deterrent value of the public execution to ensure that other slaves are in their place. The process of sentencing in itself was simple when applied to black people. In lieu of a jury trial, the so-called justices of peace could hear and render a quick judgment when a case involved a slave defendant. It is only logical that such a system led to sentencing contrasts. In North Carolina alone, more slaves were put to death in a twenty-four year period than white people were executed in the entire 18th century.

The triumph of Americans in independence could be expected to mark the change of any elements of the British rule, including the harsh legislation. Atwell admitted the initial adoption of the English penal system, capital punishment included, by North Americans. Unsurprisingly, Americans took to changing it around the time of the revolutionary war. Clemson stated that Americans who had rendered themselves free from the British started designing a new punishment code that would protect the society from the brutality of death. This legal modification could have influenced the scope of penalization by death. Still, the data in the timeframe between 1608 and 2002 offered by US Executions showed that the number of Americans put to death between 1775 and 1799 came up to 618 residents. Between 1875 and 1899, it reached a high of 2,521 residents. Thus, the rate rose to slightly over 600 residents in 170 years. In a single century following the liberalization of the punitive code, the rate of capital punishment episodes increased almost fivefold. Far from improving the situation, the legal changes gave a greater momentum to the death penalty.

There should have been no expecting the respective situation to improve for African Americans, in fact, the race disparity increased. According to US Executions, in the 18th century, the number of black capital sentences was equal to 621 episodes, as against 567 white Americans’ death episodes. In the 19th century, the numbers of black people and white people put to death were 2,592 and 2,052 individuals respectively. Such upswing in the number of capital punishment cases comes as no surprise. A mere look at the then status of blacks in the legal system will explain why the share of the sentenced white people was roughly 80% that of black defendants put to death. According to Free, the inferior position of the slave was codified into the slave codes. The criminal responsibility for murdering a black came late. U.S. legislation had not considered the murder of a slave a felony until 1821, regarding it as a misdemeanor previously. Contrary to the change, it remained challenging to protect slaves from murder and harsh punishment since slaves were in no position to give testimony against white citizens in court. When committing a rape crime, white people did not need to worry, as rape did not exist as a criminal category during the antebellum period, that is, prior to the Civil War of 1861-1865. The positive legal shifts were marred by loopholes. On the one hand, the legal system of South Carolina permitted the physical condition of the corpse or the body of a slave as circumstantial evidence, which it did in a bid to offer slaves the protection of the legal system. On the other hand, the law bestowed a virtual immunity upon a master since his pledge of innocence required honoring.

How Matters Stand Presently

Although appearing ruthless, the earlier execution methods are still applied on the U.S. soil. Hanging used to be the major execution instrument in the 19th century. It is still employed at times, with 3 inmates hanged since 1976. Washington and New Hampshire are well placed legally to apply for it. Electric chair first put to use in New York State in 1890 and employed in the 20th century has claimed the lives of 158 individuals since 1976. Considered the least painful and the fastest, the firing squad approach favored largely in the 19th and 20th centuries were dusted off in 1977 in Utah when the Supreme Court sanctioned the resumption of death penalty used on Gary Gilmore and two others. Gas chamber introduced in 1924 by Nevada has remained an option in 3 states, including Wyoming, Missouri, and Arizona. Since 1976, lives were gassed out of 11 inmates. Last, but not least, lethal injection is the method first offered by a medical examiner from Oklahoma state. Based initially on a three-drug blend or a single dose of a powerful barbiturate in later years, the method was quite quick to get states adopting it. The inaugural application was in 1982. Since 1976, an aggregate of 1203 injections have been performed on those condemned to death.

Thus, the justice system seems to have revived some of the death penalty methods that went into oblivion in their time, apart from staying true to some earlier-used methods. Some tools like lethal injection seem new in that the justice officials from earlier centuries had no such method to use. Some approaches seem to be a product of technological progress, as is likely the case with injection and gas chamber approaches, which rationalizes their greater application in the 20th-21st centuries and non-existence in the earlier periods of the US justice system. Another important takeaway is that there has been an obvious shift towards more humane methods, as seen in the prevalence of lethal injections although a more instantaneous tool like the firing squad is not applied despite the death of an inmate being caused immediately, without anything being felt.


Thus, race is an important defining characteristic of the U.S.’ death sentence phenomenon. The trend that blacks are disproportionally targeted by the justice system distributing death sentences did not make its presence known in the 17th century since a very meager share of blacks were punished capitally, which is likely due to the smaller presence of slaves and the nature of the justice system that did not consider crimes against black people as such deeming offenses like rape misdemeanor at the most pending 1821. Black people appear to have been on the margin of the criminal justice system being reduced to the status of property rather than human beings who could be the legitimate subjects of the justice system. In just one century, black people’s death sentences already surpassed those applied to whites, as the import of slaves grew livelier. There would have been a greater contrast if white people had not been penalized through death in the revolutionary period, which could have been over factors, such as desertion and service in the U.S. army. This turbulent period also saw an upswing in female death sentences of black and white races likely over their role in the U.S. liberation, which seems especially true of black females in the south where the fate of the war was hanging in the balance and where they were doing much spying.

Even so, the second half of the 18th century witnessed far fewer female deaths since only 68 of them died, as against 911 males. While the post-revolutionary period marked the onset of legal changes that applied to the British penal code labeled as “bloody,” the rate of death penalties rose by as good as 5 times over the 19th century. Naturally, the rate of black capital punishment cases increased since, contrary to some progress towards the greater legal protection of black people, there remained loopholes, such as the pledge of innocence produced by masters. The Civil War did not make much difference, as the percentage of black people punished capitally was still greater, with lynching being a prevalent method.

It may seem that the older and modern situations should be poles apart. Truly, the number of death sentences has dipped for the first time since the first quarter of the 19th century. Other than that, black people are still richly overrepresented on the death row. While the percentage of the black people killed following the respective judicial decision is smaller, they also represent quite a small social segment. Another proof in favor of racial discrimination would be that over two-thirds of crimes are committed by whites. The modern trend shows that being black still increases the odds of being condemned to death, as used to be the case in earlier centuries. While slavery-induced legal and social marginalization of African Americans came into play earlier, the modern factors are the absolute or considerable prevalence of white judges and detectives responsible for the collection of evidence and other procedures that define the outcome of a serious offense investigation shaping the judicial decision through case findings.

When it comes to gender, far fewer women die once sentenced to death or sometime after as of now and the trend correlates with that in earlier centuries even despite the females’ involvement in the revolutionary events. The reasons for women to be far less often condemned to death are their lesser proclivity towards violent crimes and the smaller extent of involvement in crimes of whatever gravity. The reasons for court leniency include their perception as males’ accomplices, greater cooperation with the authorities, and the primary caregiver status. As for methods, although the same tools of punishment are employed, including hanging and the electric chair that are the vestiges of earlier centuries, there is a new trend towards more humane approaches, such as the lethal injection.

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