about this project

“When I knock at the gates, they will open up and let me in.”

-Milton Mathis, executed June 21, 2011

Knock at the Gates explores the death penalty in the United States through the laws in place and the individuals they affect. By displaying statistical and demographic information as well as examining individual stories, we hope to provide insight into how capital punishment has been implemented in our country. We are neither journalists nor historians, but we do aim to present an impartial view.

The majority of our information comes from the Death Penalty Information Center. We owe them enormous gratitude for their work in maintaining records of the history, laws, and events pertaining to the death penalty. We are also grateful for Austin Sarat, who spoke to us about the history of capital punishment in the United States, and for Karim Hajj, who was an essential part of conceptualizing this project.

To explore the code for this project, see our page on GitHub, here.

about us

galen beebe

writer

Galen Beebe is a writer and visual artist. Although she most often refers to herself as a poet, her work is neither defined nor confined by traditional genre distinctions. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Writing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

gabe isman

engineer

Gabe Isman is a programmer who thinks that technology could be doing so much more to alleviate pain and suffering. He is tired of being a professional first world problem solver. Here is his GitHub.

john west

editor

John West is a writer, coder, and musician. He has a BA in Philosophy and a Performance Degree in Historical Performance from Oberlin College and Conservatory and currently works as a web developer for the online magazine Quartz.

Etc. Gallery

Etc. Gallery is an artistic collaboration, digital gallery, and press. Etc. Gallery was founded by Galen Beebe and John West in 2013 to be a home for web- and paper-based narrative experiments and has since grown to include collaborators from around the United States. Learn more at etc-gallery.com.

Knock at the Gates

Knock at
the Gates

The Death Penalty in the United States

Capital punishment in the United States has been interrupted only once. Between 1968 and 1976, the Supreme Court heard three major cases that redefined sentencing laws across the country and commuted all prior death sentences to life in prison. Knock at the Gates focuses on executions since 1977 through charts, graphs, and essays. We will be releasing new material regularly through December, 2014. Continue to scroll to explore the project.

interactive

A Narrow Practice

Mapping executions since 1977

The following shows the geographic distribution of executions since 1976. 10 percent of counties account for 89 percent of executions; 1 percent account for 42 percent; and just 10 counties account for 26 percent of all executions. See how we built this interactive on our GitHub.

interactive

Last Words

Final statements from the condemned in Texas

Texas keeps a database of the last words of its condemned. The following are the top fifty most common words for their final statements. Clicking on each bubble brings up a representative statement in full. See how we built this interactive on our GitHub.

essay

Gary Gilmore

The rebirth of capital punishment

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.

essay

Velma Barfield

Gender and the death penalty

On November 2, 1984, Velma Barfield became the first woman to be executed after the end of the moratorium, and the first woman to be executed by lethal injection in United States history. Barfield was convicted of the first-degree murder of Stuart Taylor, her then-fianceé, in December of 1978. There was no question of Barfield’s guilt; she confessed to the murder after her sister called North Carolina police and tearfully told them that Barfield had poisoned Taylor and others. Though she was only tried for Taylor’s murder, she also confessed to poisoning her mother, Lillian Burke, and two others.

Following her conviction, Barfield became a born-again Christian. She garnered support from the Christian community, including evangelist Billy Graham, as well as abolitionists across the nation. While incarcerated, she ministered to fellow inmates, and prison officials called her a model prisoner and “a deeply religious person.” Her supporters cited her religion and the help she provided to fellow inmates as proof that she had changed. They also emphasized her drug addiction and the abuse she suffered at the hands of her father and husband, both of which could be considered mitigating factors, but neither of which was brought up at her original trial. Though these factors were addressed in her appeals, it was to no avail.

Failing before the court, Barfield asked North Carolina Governor James B. Hunt Jr. for clemency. He denied her request. This decision came at the end of a closely fought Senate race with Jesse Helms, the Republican incumbent. 78 percent of North Carolina voters at the time supported capital punishment, and opponents argued that Hunt denied clemency as a political move. He lost the race.

Politics wasn’t the only issue; at the time of her death, it had been over twenty years since a woman had been executed in the United States. Her supporters photographed her with her grandchildren, and People Magazine called her “a plump, hazel-eyed grandmother who reads her Bible daily, crochets dolls for her grandchildren and speaks in a soft, meek drawl.” The public and the media couldn’t reconcile her appearance as a gentle, spiritual caretaker with the fact of her crimes. As one LA Times article asked: “Cold Killer or Loving Grandma?”

The gender gap is the greatest disparity on death row. Including Barfield, fifteen women have been executed in the United States since 1977—a mere 1 percent of the 1,390 executions. According to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, as of October 1, 2014 there were 57 women on death row, constituting 1.88 percent of the total death row population. A 2012 report by Professor Victor Streib shows that women account for 10 percent of annual murder arrests but only 2.1 percent of death sentences, and the numbers keep dropping as the trial continues. Women are less likely to be sentenced to death and, once sentenced, they are less likely to be executed.

Despite the low execution rate for female offenders, murders with female victims are much more likely to result in a death sentence. According to a Cornell Law School study, 32.3 percent of murders involving male victims resulted in a death sentence, while 47.1 percent of murders with female victims did. The study used data from Delaware between 1976 and 2007 to attempt to explain “the female victim effect.” The study concludes that though murders with male and female victims have comparable numbers of aggravating or mitigating factors., the differences in heinousness, method of murder, perceived vulnerability, family responsibilities, and perceived disreputable behavior combine to “make cases with female victims seem and “feel” different than cases involving male victims.”

Barfield’s supporters were with her until the end. On the night of her death, 300 demonstrators stood a silent vigil outside of the prison, clustered around a sign that spelled out the word “hope.” Each carried a candle that was extinguished as the execution took place.