Facts & Research

United States Supreme Court

In the 1970s, the U.S. Supreme Court found the application of the death penalty unconstitutional, but allowed executions to resume under revised laws four years later. Today, the Court often faces questions on the constitutionality of particular aspects of the death-penalty system.


The Supreme Court is the final arbiter of whether the constitution is being followed. States may be more protective of individual rights than required under the federal constitution, but they cannot be less protective. In particular, the Supreme Court is responsible for ensuring that state use of the death penalty adheres to our fundamental rights. Court rulings can involve the methods of execution used, the competency of defense counsel, the selection of juries, the behavior of the prosecution, and many other matters protected by the right to due process.

In the earlier history of the country, the Supreme Court left much of the practice of the death penalty and other punishments to the states’ discretion, rarely ruling on whether any practice should be considered cruel and unusual. In recent decades, the Court has regularly considered multiple capital cases each term. Some of these cases arise from appeals of state rulings involving the U.S. constitution, others are result of federal decisions on both state and federal death penalty matters.

At Issue

The key question for the Supreme Court is whether the death penalty itself continues to be constitutional in light of its rare use and its rejection by large segments of society. Recent revelations about the risks of executing innocent defendants, racial bias in its application, and the lengthy time inmates spend on death row, has led society to rethink its support of the death penalty. Some Justices have called for a comprehensive review of the practice. The make-up of the Court is likely to determine when such a case might be considered and how the Court will rule.

What DPIC Offers

DPIC has summaries of the important death penalty cases decided by the Supreme Court in the modern era. The opinions of individual Justices on the practice of the death penalty in the U.S. are highlighted. Cases that the Court has decided to hear but have not yet been argued are previewed on the website.

News & Developments


Jul 17, 2024

United States Supreme Court Issues Rare Last-Minute Stay for Ruben Gutierrez

The state of Texas was sched­uled to exe­cute Ruben Gutierrez (pic­tured) on July 16, 2024; how­ev­er, the United States Supreme Court issued a rare, last-minute stay of exe­cu­tion just 20 min­utes before he was sched­uled to be exe­cut­ed by lethal injec­tion. This is the first stay of exe­cu­tion grant­ed by the Supreme Court since it issued a stay for Richard Glossip in 2023. In a peti­tion filed with the Supreme Court, attor­neys for Mr. Gutierrez asked the Court to inter­vene because Texas has denied…

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Jun 13, 2024

By Reversing Grants of Relief, Supreme Court Signals Lower Courts to Apply Stricter Approach to Review of Ineffective Assistance of Counsel Claims

In the past two weeks, the Supreme Court over­turned grants of relief for two death-sen­tenced pris­on­ers. In both cas­es, low­er courts had found they received inef­fec­tive assis­tance of coun­sel at tri­al. The Court’s rul­ings are in line with its oth­er deci­sions in death penal­ty cas­es restrict­ing appeals for death-sen­tenced pris­on­ers and extolling the impor­tance of final­i­ty” over merits-based…

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May 17, 2024

Tennessee Authorizes Death Penalty for Child Sexual Assault in Direct Challenge to Supreme Court Precedent

On May 9, Governor Bill Lee of Tennessee signed a bill autho­riz­ing the death penal­ty for aggra­vat­ed rape of a child, fol­low­ing Florida’s pas­sage of a sim­i­lar law last year. Both laws con­tra­dict long­stand­ing Supreme Court prece­dent hold­ing the death penal­ty uncon­sti­tu­tion­al for non-homi­cide crimes. Tennessee’s law takes effect on July 1. The state has had a death penal­ty mora­to­ri­um in place since May 2022 after Governor Lee learned that state offi­cials had failed to test exe­cu­tion drugs for…

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May 07, 2024

In Amicus Briefs, Conservative Officials, Oklahoma Lawmakers, and Civil Rights Groups are United in Urging the U.S. Supreme Court to Vacate Richard Glossip’s Conviction

On April 30, 2024, a week after the par­ties in Glossip v. Oklahoma filed mer­its briefs at the United States Supreme Court, sev­er­al ami­ci filed briefs in sup­port of the par­ties’ joint posi­tion, ask­ing the Court to grant Richard Glossip (pic­tured) a new tri­al. Ken Cuccinelli, the for­mer Virginia Attorney General and Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security under President Donald Trump, said in his brief that the con­se­quences of fail­ing to over­turn Mr. Glossip’s con­vic­tion are most dire.”…

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Apr 24, 2024

Supreme Court Roundup: Justices Hear Oral Arguments on Ineffective Assistance of Counsel, Cruel and Unusual Punishment; Defend Positions on Stays

On April 17, the Supreme Court heard oral argu­ments in Thornell v. Jones, a case impli­cat­ing the test for inef­fec­tive assis­tance of coun­sel — and the first and only oral argu­ment in a death penal­ty case sched­uled this term. Arizona appealed the Ninth Circuit’s deci­sion vacat­ing the death sen­tence of Danny Lee Jones, which found that Mr. Jones was prej­u­diced by his attorney’s fail­ure to present key mit­i­gat­ing evi­dence as to Mr. Jones’ brain dam­age, child­hood phys­i­cal and sex­u­al abuse, and…

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