Capital punishment was part of English Common Law prior to the establishment of the United States. It was used as a possible punishment for felonies (murder, rape, burglary, arson, kidnapping, etc.).
After the English colonies in America declared their independence, each passed a reception statute giving legal effect to English Common Law as it stood on some particular date (e.g. April 19, 1775 in New York). Therefore, capital punishment was a legally valid punishment for certain crimes in the United States prior to, including and after its independence.
Capital punishment is recognized in the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution (ratified in 1788), "No person shall... be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law."
Thereafter, each State could choose to limit or abolish capital punishment for State crimes by legislative enactment. In 1794, Pennsylvania repealed the death penalty for all offenses except first degree murder.
In 1972, the United States Supreme Court found capital punishment unconstitutional on the grounds that the death penalty, is it was then applied (generally as a mandatory sentence), constituted cruel and unusual punishment (Furman v. George, 408 US 238). After 1972 many states experimented with different capital punishment schemes to try to address the Court's concerns.
In 1976, the United States Supreme Court upheld a bifurcated sentencing scheme for capital crimes in which the accused would have one trial to determine guilt, and a second hearing to determine sentence (Gregg v. Georgia, 428 US 153).
Since 1976, 38 States have readopted capital punishment.
On January 17, 1977, Gary Gilmore was the first person to be
executed following the Court's decision in Gregg v. Georgia.