On this day: first woman executed in U.S., Supreme Court issues new ruling on capital punishment nearly two centuries later

El Paso News
FEDERAL DEATH CHAMBER

FILE – This March 22, 1995, file photo shows the interior of the execution chamber in the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind. Activists widely expected President Joe Biden to take swift action against the death penalty as the first sitting president to oppose capital punishment, especially since an unprecedented spate of executions by his predecessor ended just days before Biden took office. Instead, the White House has been mostly silent. (AP Photo/Chuck Robinson, File)

EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — July 2nd marks major landmarks in the American justice system when it comes to federal executions.

On July 2, 1778 the United States executed the first woman in American history. 

Bathesba Spooner was hanged for the 1778 murder of her husband, Joshua Spooner, in Brookfield, Massachusetts.

Scholar Deborah Navas writes that “it is hard to imagine a story more dramatic, involving illicit love, betrayal, murder, and execution played out against the backdrop of the Revolutionary War.”

Bathesba plotted to kill her husband with her boyfriend and two other accomplices. The conspirators killed Joshua and dumped the body in the Spooner’s well. All but Bathesba confessed “immediately and publicly”, according to Navas, and Bathesba is said to have acknowledged her death was justified while standing on the scaffold.

She tried to delay the execution because she was five months pregnant with her boyfriend’s baby, but the request was denied.

Bathesba’s execution was the first capital case in the U.S.

Attitudes surrounding capital punishment waned over the course of American history. No death sentences were carried out from 1968 to 1976 because many argued that execution was unconstitutional, citing cruel and unusual punishment.

An unofficial moratorium on executions spread in the U.S. in 1967 following public protests over capital punishment.

In 1972, Furman v. Georgia made its way to the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), and the court ruled that capital punishment was unconstitutional in its application. SCOTUS determined that execution violated the eight amendment (cruel and unusual punishment) because of the fluidity over which criminals were given the death penalty and those who were not. 

SCOTUS said new laws could be implemented if transparent standards on capital punishment were imposed.

On July 2, 1976, however, the SCOTUS ruled that execution is constitutionally valid as a punishment for convicted murderers. 

Yesterday, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced that federal executions will be suspended for renewed constitutional analysis.

“The Department of Justice must ensure that everyone in the federal criminal justice system is not only afforded the rights guaranteed by the Constitution and laws of the United States but is also treated fairly and humanly,” said Garland. 

Former Attorney General William Barr ordered federal prisons to resume lethal injections in 2019 using only one drug, a powerful sedative.

Thirteen federal executions were carried out under Barr between July 2020 and January 2021, after sustained court arguments over shortages of the three drugs used to perform lethal injections that halted federal executions for nearly 20 years.

Garland has ordered a review of the revised lethal injections policies, and also instructed the Bureau of Prisons to cease lethal injections during the analysis. 

The memo didn’t say whether the federal government will pursue the death penalty in criminal cases and will be investigating a Trump-era policy that allowed federal prisons to perform executions using any method authorized by the state the sentence was imposed.

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