On July 19, 1976, while out of prison on parole, Gary Gilmore shot and killed two men during separate armed robberies. He was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in the state of Utah. The trial lasted only two days. Though he was legally entitled, Gilmore refused to appeal the decision. He was 35 when he was convicted and had already spent over half of his life incarcerated in various states. The ACLU fought and won several stays of execution, but Gilmore ultimately told them to “butt out,” stating: “This is my life, and this is my death. It’s been sanctioned by the courts that I die, and I accept that.” The state gave him the options of hanging and firing squad, and Gilmore chose the latter. He was executed on January 17, 1977.
Gilmore’s death marked the end of the ten-year pause in executions in the United States, but the abolitionist tide had begun to turn decades before the moratorium began. After World War II, human rights became the talk of the western world. In 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Though this document did not prohibit the death penalty, it did specify that “no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” and “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.” Soon after, countries across Europe began abolishing the death penalty, either in law or in practice.
In the United States, too, support for capital punishment was waning. In 1957, Hawaii and Alaska abolished the death penalty; Delaware followed suit the year after, but reinstated the practice in 1961. Between 1964 and 1968, five more states outlawed executions. In 1966, support for capital punishment reached an all time low, with approval dipping to only 42 percent. Everyone from local politicians to then-presidential candidate Robert Kennedy denounced the practice.
Two landmark Supreme Court cases in 1968 challenged arbitrary and biased sentencing practices and transformed American capital punishment. In United States v. Jackson, the Court struck down the provision of the federal kidnapping statute that held that defendants could only be sentenced to death by a jury’s decision, since that law allowed defendants to waive their right to a jury trial in order to avoid execution. In Witherspoon v. Illinois, the Court ruled that individuals could not be barred from serving on a jury solely because they had reservations about the death penalty, and could only be excluded if their attitude toward capital punishment would prevent them from making an impartial decision. Although the decisions in United States and Witherspoon did not ban the death penalty, 1968 saw the beginning of the voluntary nationwide moratorium.
In 1972, the moratorium became mandatory. After hearing three cases collectively known as Furman v. Georgia, the Supreme Court ruled that the current statutes regarding the administration of capital punishment were unconstitutional because they were, according to Justice Stewart, “so wantonly and so freakishly imposed.” This ruling voided 40 statutes across the country, commuted all death sentences to life in prison, and officially suspended the death penalty.
Over the next four years, states wishing to restore capital punishment made a variety of reforms to their statutes in attempts to reduce arbitrary and discriminatory sentencing. In the 1976 case Gregg v. Georgia, the Supreme Court ruled that Texas’s, Florida’s, and Georgia’s new statutes were constitutional. The Gregg ruling allowed all states to impose the death penalty provided they accept by the new sentencing guidelines. Thus, the death penalty was reinstated, and with Gary Gilmore’s execution, capital punishment began again.