History of the Death Penalty

Executions in Pennsylvania were carried out by hanging from the time the first colonists arrived in the late 1600s. In 1834, Pennsylvania became the first state in the union to abolish public hangings; and, for the next eight decades, each county was responsible for carrying out its own "private hangings" within the walls of its county jail. The responsibility for executing capital cases passed to the state in 1913 when the electric chair took the place of the gallows.

The location of the chair selected by the state legislature was the new Western Penitentiary in Centre County, now known as the State Correctional Institution at Rockview. Although capital punishment by electrocution was authorized by legislation in 1913, neither the chair nor the institution were ready for occupancy until 1915.

From 1915 until 1962, there were a total of 350 persons executed in the chair, two of whom were women. The last person to be so executed was Elmo Smith, a Montgomery County case tried on a change of venue in Gettysburg, Adams County. Smith was executed on April 2, 1962, for the rape/slaying of a seventeen-year old girl. Coincidentally, the first person executed in the chair, John Talap, also was sentenced in Montgomery County.

On November 29, 1990, Gov. Robert P. Casey signed legislation changing Pennsylvania's method of execution from electrocution to lethal injection. The electric chair and all of its associated equipment were removed from the capital punishment complex at SCI Rockview in December 1990 and subsequently turned over to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Facilities at SCI Rockview were renovated, and Department of Corrections policy was revised to accommodate the new method of capital punishment. On May 2, 1995, Keith Zettlemoyer became the first person executed by lethal injection in Pennsylvania. Since that date, two additional men have been executed by lethal injection.

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