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Q&A: US government not as prolific an executioner as states

CHICAGO (AP) — Executions carried out by federal authorities have stopped, restarted and stopped again for long stretches since the first one in 1790, when U.S. marshals hanged a mariner in Maine for fatally shooting the captain of a slave ship.

After a 17-year hiatus, the Trump administration wants to restart federal executions this month in Terre Haute, Indiana. The first was supposed to happen Monday, but it was delayed by an Indiana federal judge's ruling. The Justice Department appealed that decision.

Some questions and answers about the history of the death penalty: Q: HOW MANY FEDERAL EXECUTIONS HAVE THERE BEEN? A: . The federal government has never been a prolific executioner. It has carried out no more than a few hundred executions since Congress first codified which federal crimes called for capital punishment more than 200 years ago.

Just 37 people were executed for federal crimes between 1927 and 2003, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Thirty-four were executed between 1927 and 1963, including Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were put to death in 1953 for passing nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union.

No federal executions were carried out from 1963 to 2001. Only three happened from 2001 to 2003, all by lethal injection in Terre Haute. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was among them. The last was the March 2003 execution of Louis Jones, a decorated Gulf War veteran who said exposure to Iraqi nerve gas caused him to rape and kill a female soldier.

Q: WHAT ABOUT EXECUTIONS BY STATES? A: From the colonial days to the present, states have put to death more than 15,000 people, according to data compiled by leading death-penalty researchers M. Watt Espy and John Ortiz Smykla.

Virginia has had the most executions, with more than 1,380. Wisconsin has had just one, when John McCaffary was publicly hanged in 1851 for drowning his wife in a barrel. Since it became a state, Hawaii has had no executions.

Since 1977, Texas has carried out the most, with 570. Q: HOW HAVE EXECUTION METHODS CHANGED? A: A 1624 Virginia Assembly report described settlers being “putt to sundry deathes as by hanginge, shooting and breaking uppon the wheele.” Into the 1700s, Virginia retained an eye-for-an-eye clause, which meant that those who shot their victims were shot and those who used poison were poisoned.

In recent decades, the vast majority of executions (more than 1,200) have been carried out by lethal injection. That’s the only method currently authorized for federal executions. But most executions since the 1700s have been by hanging. Espy and Smykla put the number at around 9,000. The second-most prevalent mode has been electrocution, with more than 4,400. That method began to displace hanging in the early 1900s.

Q: WHAT HAVE PEOPLE BEEN EXECUTED FOR? A: Among the acts that carried the death penalty in colonies and states in the years before and after independence was using the Lord’s name in vain and children striking their parents.

From colonial days to the mid-1800s, 35 people were executed for witchcraft, 20 for aiding runaway slaves and two for adultery, according to the Northwestern Journal of Law and Social Policy. Congress in 1790 made the death penalty mandatory for about a dozen federal crimes, including piracy and forgery, according to the Fordham Urban Law Journal.

In 1897, Congress rescinded the death penalty for all but five federal crimes. Capital punishment could also no longer be mandatory and was left to juries to impose. The list of federal crimes that carried the possibility of death got longer over the years. Providing illegal drugs to minors was added in 1956 and a 1988 law made drug kingpins eligible. Acts of terrorism were added in 1994.

Q: WHO WERE THE FIRST TO BE EXECUTED? A: The first documented execution in the colonies occurred in 1608, when Capt. George Kendall was shot for working as a spy for Spain. The first federal execution was the 1790 hanging of Thomas Bird. The mariner unsuccessfully sought clemency from President George Washington after shooting a captain with a reputation for brutality on “the Mary,” a small vessel that ferried captured Africans to slave ships anchored off of Africa’s coast, according to the book, “Portland Neck: The Hanging of Thomas Bird.”

Q: WHEN DID EFFORTS TO END THE DEATH PENALTY BEGIN? A: There were few detectable movements immediately after independence. The American Society for the Abolition of Capital Punishment was founded in 1845.

Criticism of the death penalty grew in Wisconsin after McCaffary reportedly took five minutes to die by hanging. Two years later, in 1853, Wisconsin became the first state to permanently end executions.

To date, 20 states have abolished the death penalty. Q: WHEN DID THE SUPREME COURT WEIGH IN? A: A 1972 landmark ruling deemed the death penalty cruel and unusual, citing racial bias and arbitrariness in applying it. That essentially voided all existing capital punishment laws.

But the court followed with a 1976 decision clarifying that states could rewrite laws to render the death penalty constitutional. A year later, Utah became the first state since that ruling to carry out an execution, when serial killer Gary Gilmore was killed by firing squad.

Federal capital punishment was restored by law in 1988.

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