What is a brief history of capital punishment in the United States?

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The first recorded judicial execution in the territory that would become the United States occurred in Virginia in 1608 when George Kendall was shot for espionage. Almost two centuries later, in 1794, Pennsylvania became the first state to abolish the death penalty for all crimes except premeditated murder and, in 1834, it ceased holding public executions. By 1846 two states--Rhode Island and Wisconsin--had abolished the death penalty altogether. As of 2018, 20 states have done away with the death penalty.

A major legal challenge to the death penalty was decided in the 1972 case Furman v. Georgia. The Supreme Court ruled that "the imposition and carrying out of the death penalty . . . constitutes cruel and unusual punishment" and was a violation of the eighth and the fourteenth amendments to the U.S. constitution. This essentially put a moratorium on the application of the death penalty that was ultimately overturned four years later in Gregg vs. Georgia when the court decided that newly enacted legislation in many states overcame the constitutional issues previously raised. Most recently, in 2005, the Supreme Court determined that the use of the death penalty on perpetrators who were minors at the time they committed the crimes for which they were convicted was unconstitutional.

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