February 15

This Day in History

Crime

Feb 15, 1933:

The death penalty--then and now

Giuseppe Zangara shoots Anton Cermak, the mayor of Chicago, in Miami, Florida. Zangara's shots missed President-elect Franklin Roosevelt, who was with Cermak at the time. Cermak was seriously wounded and died on March 6.

Immediately after Mayor Cermak died from the gunshot wounds, Zangara was indicted and arraigned for murder. He pled guilty and died in the electric chair on March 20, only two weeks after Cermak died. Today such a swift outcome would be practically unheard of, particularly where the death penalty is concerned.

Changes began in the 1950s. In the most notable case, Caryl Chessman spent almost 12 years on California's death row before going to the gas chamber in 1960 for kidnapping. His appeals kept him alive while he wrote three published books and caught the attention of Hollywood and the international community, who lobbied publicly on his behalf. The Chessman battle did more than any other case to politicize the death penalty; some credit it with bringing Ronald Reagan (who fiercely opposed commuting Chessman's sentence) to office as California's governor. Chessman was one of the last Americans to be executed for committing a crime other than murder.

Such cases have become commonplace in modern times. Jerry Joe Bird met his demise through a lethal injection in Texas in 1991, after 17 years on death row. In 1999, two inmates who had been on death row for 20 years appealed to the Supreme Court that the long delay itself was cruel and unusual punishment. The Court declined to hear their appeal, ruling that the prisoners had caused the delay themselves.

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