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Monday, 11 June, 2001, 05:53 GMT 06:53 UK
Executions out of the ordinary
An electric chair
The electric chair, seen as barbaric, has been largely replaced by lethal injection
The death of Timothy McVeigh is one of the most high profile executions in American history. BBC News Online's Chris Summers looks back at the landmark cases.

  • Salem witchcraft trials

    Long before the United States came into existence, 'Americans' were being put to death in high profile trials.

    In 1692, 19 people were hanged in Salem, Massachusetts after being convicted of witchcraft.

    Several others died in prison awaiting trial and another accused, Giles Corey, died after being interrogated by having stone weights placed on his chest.

    Karla Faye Tucker
    Karla Faye Tucker's born-again Christianity did not save her
    The charges stemmed from the bizarre behaviour of two little girls, whose father and uncle were the town's minister, Reverend Samuel Parris.

    When the hysteria had died down, the Governor of Massachusetts, William Phips, ordered that reliance on spectral and intangible evidence no longer be allowed in trials.

  • William Kemmler

    In the 19th century the number of executions increased as the US literally got bigger and lawlessness became a greater problem in the "Wild West".

    Increasingly sophisticated methods, such as the gas chamber and electric chair, were invented in an attempt to create a more humane way of carrying out executions.

    On 6 August 1890 William Kemmler was the first person to be electrocuted, in Auburn prison in New York state.

  • Sacco and Vanzetti

    Italian-American anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti became a cause celebre when they were convicted in 1921 of murdering two men during a robbery in Braintree, Massachusetts.

    In 1925 Celestino Medeiros, who admitted taking part in the robbery and was also later executed, wrote a letter in which he said Sacco and Vanzetti were not part of the robbery gang.

    But the pair were executed, after a series of appeals, on 23 August 1927.

    Vanzetti's last words were: "I wish to say to you that I am innocent."

    Robert Alton Harris
    Robert Alton Harris's execution: First in California for 25 years
    The executions - by electric chair - were followed by demonstrations in several cities, and a number of prominent writers, including Dorothy Parker, were arrested for protesting.

    There was also violent retribution. The homes of the executioner, Robert Elliott, and the judge, Webster Thayer, were both bombed but neither was hurt.

  • Ruth Snyder

    Snyder, a housewife from Queens, New York, and her lover Judd Gray murdered her husband Albert.

    On 12 January 1928 Snyder went to the electric chair at Sing Sing prison in New York.

    Photographer Thomas Howard took a covert picture of the moment of death using a camera secretly strapped to his ankle, and the photo was splashed across the front of the New York Daily News.

    The picture boosted the paper's circulation by 750,000 but the Daily News only narrowly avoided prosecution.

    Elaborate precautions were introduced afterwards to stop secret photos being taken.

  • Bruno Hauptmann

    Charles Lindbergh became one of the most famous men in the world when he flew single-handedly across the Atlantic in 1927.

    Five years later his world was turned upside down when his infant son, Charles Jr, was kidnapped from the bedroom of his home in East Amwell, New Jersey.

    A $50,000 ransom note was left in the room and although the money was paid, the baby's body was later found in a nearby wood.

    Hauptmann was convicted in 1935 after the so-called "trial of the century" and, although he never confessed, was sent to the electric chair on 3 April 1936.

  • Ethel and Julius Rosenberg

    At the height of the Cold War, and the McCarthyite witch-hunt, a Jewish couple were convicted of passing secrets about the US nuclear bomb to the Soviet Union.

    On 21 June 1953 Ethel and Julius Rosenberg are executed by electric chair.

    The case against Julius Rosenberg was strong, and has been underlined since in several Soviet leaders' memoirs, but the evidence against his wife was weak.

    She was the first woman executed by the US Government since Mary Surratt was hanged for her role in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

  • Gary Gilmore

    During the 1950s and 1960s 10 states, including Michigan and New York, abolished the death penalty and the rate of executions nationwide began to decline.

    By 1968 executions had stopped and in 1972 the Supreme Court ruled, in the case of Furman v Georgia, "that the imposition of the death penalty constituted cruel and unusual punishment".

    But 35 states responded by drafting new death penalty statutes and in 1976 the Supreme Court reversed its decision, ruling that the punishment of death did not violate the constitution provided that "guided discretion" was exercised in imposing it.

    Gary Gilmore
    Gary Gilmore chose to waive any appeals against execution
    In October 1976 Gary Gilmore was convicted of a double murder in Utah and sentenced to death.

    Gilmore, who had spent much of his life in prison, could not bear the prospect of spending years behind bars and decided not to appeal the sentence.

    The American Civil Liberties Union appealed on his behalf - and to his annoyance - but on 17 January 1977 Gilmore was executed by firing squad, the first execution in the US for a decade.

    Norman Mailer later wrote a book about Gilmore, The Executioner's Song, which was made into a TV movie starring Tommy Lee Jones.

  • Robert Alton Harris

    In 1979 Harris was sentenced to death for the murder of two teenage boys whose car he had stolen.

    He was executed on 21 April 1992 in the gas chamber at San Quentin State Prison in California, the state's first execution for 25 years.

    Harris's last words, quoting a Keanu Reeves film, were: "You can be a king or a street sweeper, but everyone dances with the grim reaper."

    A federal judge ordered the execution to be filmed so as to decide whether the gas chamber was a "cruel and unusual punishment". The tapes were later destroyed.

  • Karla Faye Tucker

    Women's groups and evangelist churches sought to save her from execution by lethal injection in February 1998.

    Tucker, a prostitute and drug addict, and her boyfriend bludgeoned to death two people in 1983.

    While on Death Row she became a born-again Christian and was forgiven by the brother of one of her victims.

    But George W Bush, then Governor of Texas, refused to intervene and she became the first woman to be killed by the state since 1863.

  • Gary Graham

    In the middle of his presidential campaign, George W Bush, refuses to reprieve Graham, who is executed by lethal injection at Huntstville, Texas.

    There was widespread disquiet about the evidence which had condemned Graham for the murder of a white man.

    Evidence showing that the gun police found on him could not have fired the fatal bullet had never been put before a jury.

    His lawyer Richard Burr - who has also represented McVeigh - said: "I really believe this man is innocent, and I really believe we are about to murder him because if he is innocent then we are murdering him."

    Graham was executed on 22 June 2000.

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    23 Jun 00 | Americas
    Death row man executed
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