Rulings related to Capital Punishment in America and Societal Implications

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The following table outlines several of the most important U.S. Supreme Court ruling related to the death penalty/capital punishment in America.

  • U.S. Supreme Court Case
    • The name of the case and the year the U.S. Supreme Court held its ruling
    • Click on the name of the case if you want to learn more about the case from Oyez.org
  • Question/Issue
    • The constitutional controversy or controversies raised that the U.S. Supreme Court must decide
  • Ruling
    • The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision: whether or not the issue is constitutional
  • Implications: The Implications of U.S. Supreme Court Rulings regarding the Death Penalty
    • The societal impact, consequences and conclusions that we determined from the respective U.S. Supreme Court ruling of five of the most relevant cases

U.S. Supreme Court Case

Question/Issue

Ruling

Furman v. Georgia (1972)

Does imposition and carrying out of death penalty constitute “cruel and unusual punishment” in violation of 8th and 14th Am.?

YES (5-4); Brennan and Marshall: always

Arbitrary nature (racial bias)

Capricious and discriminatory manner

Woodson v. North Carolina (1976)

Did mandatory death penalty violate 8th and 14th Amendments?

YES (5-4); law departs from contemporary standards; no standard to guide juries; no consideration of character and record of defendant

Roberts v. Louisiana (1976)

Does Louisiana’s scheme violate 8th and 14th Am. protections against arbitrary and capricious?

YES (5-4); mandatory imposition doesn’t allow juries to consider mitigating factors; and instructing juries on lesser crimes unconstitutional

Jurek v. Texas (1976)

Is the death penalty “cruel and unusual”? Is Texas’s capital-sentencing procedure unconstitutional?

NO (7-2); not unconstitutional; and procedure not unconstitutional because allows jurors to consider mitigating factors (circumstance and character)

Gregg v. Georgia (1976)

Is the imposition of the death penalty prohibited under 8th and 14th Am. b/c “cruel and unusual”?

NO (7-2); careful and judicious use appropriate; Georgia’s bifurcated process; deterrence; retribution

Proffitt v. Florida (1976)

Death penalty “cruel and unsual?” Florida’s capital-sentencing procedure unconstitutional?

NO and NO (7-2); not cruel and unusual; not arbitrary and capricious; trial judge sole-sentencing; aggravating vs. mitigating; auto review by SCoFA.

Coker v. Georgia (1977)

Imposition of death penalty for rape “cruel and unusual” banned by 8th Amendment?

YES (7-2); “grossly disproportionate;” no taking of human life; excessive “in severity and revocability”

McCleskey v. Kemp (1987)

Did the statistical study (black men, white victims, more death penalty) violate 8th and 14th Am.?

NO (5-4): no proof of discrimination in particular trial; not apply to all; present to legislative bodies

Booth v. Maryland (1987)

Does 8th and 14th Am. prohibit use of victim-impact statement during the sentencing phase?

YES (5-4): “constitutionally unacceptable risk;” jury sentencing based on character of defendant; divert attention from facts; “emotionally-charged opinions” divert “reasoned decision-making”

Payne v. Tennessee (1991)

Does victim impact evidence violate the 8th Am. rights that inadmissible at a capital sentencing hearing?

NO (6-3): stare decisis could be disregarded; victims’ rights (personal characteristics, emotional impact); prosecution could argue such evidence during sentencing; Booth and Gathers overruled

Atkins v. Virginia (2002)

Is the execution of a mentally retarded person “cruel and unusual” prohibited by the 8th Amendment?

YES (6-3): many States concluded not acceptable punishment; lessened culpability; “evolving standards of decency;” opinion of public

Roper v. Simmons (2005)

Does the execution of minors violate 8th Am. ban on “cruel and unusual punishment” and applied to States through “incorporation doctrine” of the 14th Am.?

YES (5-4); majority opinion of public and state legislatures; disproportionate punishment for minors; “overwhelming” international opposition

Baze and Bowling v. Rees (2008)

Is the use of a four-drug lethal injection process to carry “cruel and unusual?”

NO (7-2); “humane nature” of process; failed to prove botch unconstitutional; may be unconstitutional w/o justification and alt. process

Kennedy v. Louisiana (2008)

Do states violate 8th Am. ban on “cruel and unusual punishment” by imposing death penalty for child rape?

YES (5-4): no death; violation of national consensus; “blanket nature;” no weight of circumstances