Massachusetts was one of the first of the original 13 colonies to carry out the death penalty, as early as 1630. Hanging was the primary method of execution. Some defendants in the 1600’s were executed for religious affiliations, and there were dozens of individuals, both male and female, executed for witchcraft, including 19 hangings during the infamous Salem Witch Trials.
In 1900, Massachusetts installed an electric chair to be used in death penalty cases. Electrocution was the form of execution in the Commonwealth in the twentieth century. Until 1951, any first degree murder conviction required the death penalty. This changed to provide jury discretion on most murder cases. However, the death penalty was still mandated in murders involving rape or attempted rape.
After the 1972 Furman decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, striking down several states’ death penalty laws, Massachusetts passed an amendment to their law in 1982 reinstating the death penalty. This reinstatement was short-lived, however, as a 1984 ruling declared the death penalty unconstitutional on the grounds that it was not applied fairly, since only defendants who went to trial were eligible; this excluded defendants who plead guilty. After the death penalty was ruled unconstitutional in the state, several governors, including Gov. Mitt Romney, tried to reinstate the death penalty. To date, they have failed.
Overall, 345 recorded executions were carried out in Massachusetts.