The death penalty is a direct descendant of lynching and other forms of racial violence and racial oppression in the American South.
Until the end of the Civil War, black people and whites were subject to different legal codes in most states, with the law dictating much harsher punishments for black people. For example, whites were only eligible for the death penalty if they committed murder; black people, on the other hand, could be put to death for a much broader range of crimes, including rape, robbery, and even minor transgressions like destroying property or administering medicine.
Following the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, unequal sentencing statutes became unconstitutional and were formally outlawed. Whites in the South during Reconstruction devised new ways to control and intimidate newly freed black people. In place of the unequal sentencing statutes, laws gave sentencing discretion in capital cases to all-white juries, who overwhelmingly spared white defendants while frequently sentencing black defendants to death. Executions took the form of hangings, which remained public in some Southern states well into the twentieth century.
In addition to official executions, unofficial executions—lynchings—were common in the South after the Civil War. Lynch mobs made up of self-appointed citizens captured and publicly killed suspects (almost always black men) for actual or alleged crimes, without due process. Lynching victims were usually hanged, but were sometimes burned or tortured as well. Those who carried out lynchings were not subject to punishment.
Critics have referred to official executions in the South as “legal lynchings” because of how closely state-mandated executions resembled mob lynchings. The line between the official and the unofficial, the extralegal and the legal, was blurred. Often, the “due process” that distinguished legal executions from extralegal ones was merely a charade, with trials that were no more than a formality. In one case in Kentucky, for example, an African-American man named Allen Mathias, accused of raping a white woman, was tried and executed in less than an hour in order to “avoid” a lynching. After Mathias’s execution, his body was carried through the streets by a mob of whites.
Lynchings declined in the Southern United States through the 1920's and 30's, as judicial executions because more common. The standard method of execution shifted from hanging to electrocution and finally to lethal injection. The connections between lynching and the death penalty have become less explicit, but modern-day capital punishment is inextricbly linked to the unequal sentencing laws of the slavery era and the legal and extralegal lynchings of Reconstruction.
For books about the Death Penalty, click here.
For films about the Death Penalty, click here.
For links to other organizations working to abolish the Death Penalty, click here.
For general articles and resources written and assembled by SCHR staff, click here.