Capital punishment has long history in world, state

History has seen ebbs and flows in the use of the death penalty, and that is mirrored in Washington's experience.


WALLA WALLA -- Government-sponsored killings date back to hundreds of years before Christ was born.

The Death Penalty Information Center Web site says capital punishment was codified in Babylon in the 18th century B.C. for 25 different crimes. Similar laws were enacted in subsequent centuries in Athens, Rome and Britain.

"Death sentences were carried out by such means as crucifixion, drowning, beating to death, burning alive and impalement," according to the Web site.

Laws established by European settlers to the new world were mostly influenced by Britain, which by then employed various means to execute perpetrators of any of more than 200 crimes.

The DPIC reports that the first recorded execution in the new colonies was that of Capt. George Kendall in the Jamestown colony of Virginia in 1608. He was suspected of being a spy for France.

The first hanging by English colonists in the New World apparently was performed March 1, 1622, when Daniel Frank was put to death in Virginia for cattle stealing. But laws varied by colonies, then states, and went in and out of favor during subsequent centuries.

Executions in Washington state for those convicted of first-degree murder reportedly date back to 1849 during territorial days, but the first death penalty law was enacted in 1854. The method was public hanging and conducted by sheriffs in counties where the crimes took place.

Fifteen executions were held before the state was admitted to the Union on Nov. 11, 1889.

The statute was amended in 1901, requiring that executions take place at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.

Zenon "James" Champoux, a 26-year-old French Canadian farmer, was the first to be executed under the new law. He was hanged on May 6, 1904, for murdering an 18-year-old woman entertainer in Seattle about two years earlier. Headlines in the Seattle Star proclaimed: "CHAMPOUX PAYS DEATH PENALTY." "French Degenerate Who Foully Murdered His Sweetheart Lottie Brace in This City is Hanged at Walla Walla -- Met Death Without Flinching."

At the time, the death penalty was automatic for first-degree murder. But the law was changed in 1909 giving a judge the discretion to impose death or life imprisonment.

Then, as the age of reform took hold, Washington abolished the death penalty in 1913, only to reinstate it six years later giving juries the power to decide between life in prison or death for those convicted. Legislators were convinced the law was needed after a logger killed an insurance commissioner in Olympia and another went berserk and chased the governor and other state officials into a vault.

During the next four decades, the law was regularly enforced. In what became routine, 58 men were hanged at the penitentiary gallows, ending in 1963 with the hanging of Joseph Chester Self, a laborer who shot and killed a Seattle cab driver during a robbery.

It would be 30 years until the next execution in this state.

The civil rights movement took hold in the '60s, spawning a national debate on the death penalty. Nationwide, support reached its lowest point in 1966, when a Gallup poll showed only 42 percent of Americans approved of the practice.

Although framers of the Constitution accepted capital punishment per se, the U.S. Supreme Court began examining existing laws to determine if the manner in which they were drawn passed constitutional muster.

A voluntary moratorium was imposed between 1967 and 1972, the year a landmark decision by the Supreme Court voided most federal and state capital punishment laws.

Justices struck down the death penalty in a Georgia case involving William Henry Furman, a black man who shot and killed a Coast Guard petty officer while burglarizing his home. The high court ruled in the 5-4 decision that laws giving juries complete sentencing discretion in death penalty cases were unconstitutional in that the sentences could be arbitrary. Therefore, they could constitute "cruel and unusual punishment" and violate the provisions of the Eighth and Fourteenth amendments.

The Washington state Legislature abolished the death penalty in 1975. But later that year, voters approved Initiative 316 by a margin of 69-31 percent.

To address concerns in the Furman decision, the new law required an automatic death sentence for anyone convicted of first-degree murder if certain aggravating circumstances existed in connection with the killing.

Ironically, the following year, that practice also was negated by a U.S. Supreme Court decision in a North Carolina case. The court ruled that mandatory death sentences for certain crimes are unconstitutional.

But also in 1976 came a landmark ruling in a Georgia case that upheld standards and procedures whereby states could reinstitute their capital punishment laws.

Guidelines included separating a trial into two parts. A jury first would determine guilt or innocence. Then if a defendant was found guilty, that same jury in a different proceeding would be allowed to consider aggravating and mitigating factors. The resulting sentence would be death or prison time.

Other reforms under that ruling included automatic appellate review and a process to determine sentencing disparities.

Gary Gilmore, a double-murderer from Utah, was the first man executed after reinstatement of the death penalty. He faced a firing squad Jan. 17, 1977.

The Washington state Legislature addressed constitutional flaws in this state's law that year by removing the "mandatory" provision and adding a special sentencing procedure for imposing a death sentence.

According to a Washington State Bar Association report: "Under this statute, the sentencing jury was asked to determine whether guilt was established by 'clear certainty'; whether aggravating mitigating factors existed; and whether the defendant would commit additional violent acts in the future." Absent any of those findings, the punishment was life in prison without the possibility of parole.

But that law, too, was found lacking -- this time by the Washington state Supreme Court. Justices in early 1981 declared it unconstitutional because it allowed defendants who pleaded guilty to escape the death penalty. The court said that practice "chilled" a defendant's right to trial and created an inequitable sentencing scheme.

The present law was enacted by the Legislature on May 14, 1981.

Hanging remained the primary form of execution until 1996 when the Legislature switched to lethal injection as the default method. Condemned prisoners may choose hanging if they desire.

Washington state has executed 109 people since 1849, according to a database known as the Espy File.

Seventy-seven men (no women) have been put to death at the state Penitentiary since 1904.

Four of the executions have been carried out since the 1981 statute was enacted -- all since 1993.

All but the last two at the prison have been hangings.

Terry McConn can be reached at or 526-8319.


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