Constitutionality of the Death Penalty in America

History Of The Death Penalty

Constitutionality of the Death Penalty in America

Challenging the Death Penalty

The 1960s brought challenges to the fundamental legality of the death penalty. Before then, the Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments were interpreted as permitting the death penalty. However, in the early 1960s, it was suggested that the death penalty was a “cruel and unusual” punishment, and therefore unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment. In 1958, the Supreme Court had decided in Trop v. Dulles (356 U.S. 86), that the Eighth Amendment contained an “evolving standard of decency that marked the progress of a maturing society.” Although Trop was not a death penalty case, abolitionists applied the Court’s logic to executions and maintained that the United States had, in fact, progressed to a point that its “standard of decency” should no longer tolerate the death penalty. (Bohm, 1999)

In the late 1960s, the Supreme Court began “fine tuning” the way the death penalty was administered. To this effect, the Court heard two cases in 1968 dealing with the discretion given to the prosecutor and the jury in capital cases. The first case was U.S. v. Jackson (390 U.S. 570), where the Supreme Court heard arguments regarding a provision of the federal kidnapping statute requiring that the death penalty be imposed only upon recommendation of a jury. The Court held that this practice was unconstitutional because it encouraged defendants to waive their right to a jury trial to ensure they would not receive a death sentence.

The other 1968 case was Witherspoon v. Illinois (391 U.S. 510). In this case, the Supreme Court held that a potential juror’s mere reservations about the death penalty were insufficient grounds to prevent that person from serving on the jury in a death penalty case. Jurors could be disqualified only if prosecutors could show that the juror’s attitude toward capital punishment would prevent him or her from making an impartial decision about the punishment.

In 1971, the Supreme Court again addressed the problems associated with the role of jurors and their discretion in capital cases. The Court decided Crampton v. Ohio and McGautha v. California (consolidated under 402 U.S. 183). The defendants argued it was a violation of their Fourteenth Amendment right to due process for jurors to have unrestricted discretion in deciding whether the defendants should live or die, and such discretion resulted in arbitrary and capricious sentencing. Crampton also argued that it was unconstitutional to have his guilt and sentence determined in one set of deliberations, as the jurors in his case were instructed that a first-degree murder conviction would result in a death sentence. The Court, however, rejected these claims, thereby approving of unfettered jury discretion and a single proceeding to determine guilt and sentence. The Court stated that guiding capital sentencing discretion was “beyond present human ability.”

Suspending the Death Penalty

The issue of arbitrariness of the death penalty was again be brought before the Supreme Court in 1972 in Furman v. Georgia, Jackson v. Georgia, and Branch v. Texas (known collectively as the landmark case Furman v. Georgia (408 U.S. 238)). Furman, like McGautha, argued that capital cases resulted in arbitrary and capricious sentencing. Furman, however, was a challenge brought under the Eighth Amendment, unlike McGautha, which was a Fourteenth Amendment due process claim. With the Furman decision the Supreme Court set the standard that a punishment would be “cruel and unusual” if it was too severe for the crime, if it was arbitrary, if it offended society’s sense of justice, or it if was not more effective than a less severe penalty.

In 9 separate opinions, and by a vote of 5 to 4, the Court held that Georgia’s death penalty statute, which gave the jury complete sentencing discretion, could result in arbitrary sentencing. The Court held that the scheme of punishment under the statute was therefore “cruel and unusual” and violated the Eighth Amendment. Thus, on June 29, 1972, the Supreme Court effectively voided 40 death penalty statutes, thereby commuting the sentences of 629 death row inmates around the country and suspending the death penalty because existing statutes were no longer valid.

Reinstating the Death Penalty

Although the separate opinions by Justices Brennan and Marshall stated that the death penalty itself was unconstitutional, the overall holding in Furman was that the specific death penalty statutes were unconstitutional. With that holding, the Court essentially opened the door to states to rewrite their death penalty statutes to eliminate the problems cited in Furman. Advocates of capital punishment began proposing new statutes that they believed would end arbitrariness in capital sentencing. The states were led by Florida, which rewrote its death penalty statute only five months after Furman. Shortly after, 34 other states proceeded to enact new death penalty statutes. To address the unconstitutionality of unguided jury discretion, some states removed all of that discretion by mandating capital punishment for those convicted of capital crimes. However, this practice was held unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Woodson v. North Carolina (428 U.S. 280 (1976)).

Other states sought to limit that discretion by providing sentencing guidelines for the judge and jury when deciding whether to impose death. The guidelines allowed for the introduction of aggravating and mitigating factors in determining sentencing. These guided discretion statutes were approved in 1976 by the Supreme Court in Gregg v. Georgia (428 U.S. 153), Jurek v. Texas (428 U.S. 262), and Proffitt v. Florida (428 U.S. 242), collectively referred to as the Gregg decision. This landmark decision held that the new death penalty statutes in Florida, Georgia, and Texas were constitutional, thus reinstating the death penalty in those states. The Court also held that the death penalty itself was constitutional under the Eighth Amendment.

In addition to sentencing guidelines, three other procedural reforms were approved by the Court in Gregg. The first was bifurcated trials, in which there are separate deliberations for the guilt and penalty phases of the trial. Only after the jury has determined that the defendant is guilty of capital murder does it decide in a second trial whether the defendant should be sentenced to death or given a lesser sentence of prison time. Another reform was the practice of automatic appellate review of convictions and sentence. The final procedural reform from Gregg was proportionality review, a practice that helps the state to identify and eliminate sentencing disparities. Through this process, the state appellate court can compare the sentence in the case being reviewed with other cases within the state, to see if it is disproportionate.

Because these reforms were accepted by the Supreme Court, some states wishing to reinstate the death penalty included them in their new death penalty statutes. The Court, however, did not require that each of the reforms be present in the new statutes. Therefore, some of the resulting new statutes include variations on the procedural reforms found in Gregg.

The ten-year moratorium on executions that had begun with the Jackson and Witherspoon decisions ended on January 17, 1977, with the execution of Gary Gilmore by firing squad in Utah. Gilmore did not challenge his death sentence. That same year, Oklahoma became the first state to adopt lethal injection as a means of execution, though it would be five more years until Charles Brooks became the first person executed by lethal injection in Texas on December 7, 1982.

Sources

Amnesty International, List of Abolitionist and Retentionist Countries,” Report ACT 50/​01/​99, April 1999

D. Baker: A Descriptive Profile and Socio-Historical Analysis of Female Executions in the United States: 1632 – 1997”; 10(3) Women and Criminal Justice 57 (1999)

R. Bohm, Deathquest: An Introduction to the Theory and Practice of Capital Punishment in the United States,” Anderson Publishing, 1999.

The Death Penalty in America: Current Controversies,” H. Bedau, edi­tor, Oxford University Press, 1997.

K. O’Shea, Women and the Death Penalty in the United States, 1900 – 1998,” Praeger 1999.

W. Schabas The Abolition of the Death Penalty in International Law,” Cambridge University Press, sec­ond edi­tion, 1997.

Society’s Final Solution: A History and Discussion of the Death Penalty,” L. Randa, edi­tor, University Press of America, 1997.

V. Streib, Death Penalty For Female Offenders January 1973 to October 2010,” Ohio Northern University, 2010.