What are some major death penalty decisions since Furman v. Georgia (1972)?
The following explains some of the most important Supreme Court rulings about the death penalty since 1972.
Furman v. Georgia (1972)
Decision: The U.S. Supreme Court rules 5 to 4 that Georgia's death penalty scheme violates the Eighth Amendment. Three justices in the majority attach the death penalty in general, while Justices Potter Stewart and Lewis Powell focus on the fact that the death penalty law does not give jurors sufficient guidance as to which capital defendants should receive the ultimate punishment. Stewart writes that "these death sentences are cruel and unusual in the same way that being struck by lightning is cruel and unusual." This ruling led to a halt on all executions in the country until 1977.
Gregg v. Georgia (1976)
Decision: The Court rules that some death penalty statutes are constitutional because they provide sufficient guidance to the jury in terms of aggravating and mitigating factors. The Court writes that "the concerns expressed in Furman that the penalty of death not be imposed in an arbitrary or capricious manner can be met by a carefully drafted statute that ensures that the sentencing authority is given adequate information and guidance."
Roberts v. Louisiana (1976)
Decision: The Court strikes down a Louisiana statute that required the death penalty for defendants who kill police officers and did not allow those defendants to offer any mitigating factors.
Woodson v. North Carolina (1976)
Decision: The Court strikes down a North Carolina statute that required the death penalty for all criminal defendants convicted of first-degree murder.
Gilmore v. Utah (1976)
Decision: The Court rejects the constitutional claims of Utah inmate Gary Gilmore. He becomes the first person executed in the United States since the Furman decision. His execution becomes memorialized in Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song.
Coker v. Georgia (1977)
Decision: The Court rules that a sentence of death for rape is excessive punishment under the Eighth Amendment. The Court writes: "Rape is without doubt deserving of serious punishment; but in terms of moral depravity and of the injury to the person and to the public, it does not compare with murder."
Lockett v. Ohio (1978)
Decision: The Court invalidates Ohio's death penalty statute because it restricts mitigating evidence during the sentencing phase. The Court writes: "the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments require that the sentencer, in all but the rarest kind of capital case, not be precluded from considering, as a mitigating factor, any aspect of a defendant's character or record and any of the circumstances of the offense that the defendant proffers as a basis for a sentence less than death."
Adams v. Texas (1980)
Decision: The Court invalidates a Texas inmate's death sentence because the trial judge dismissed prospective jurors who said they would be "affected" by the possibility of imposing the death penalty. The Court writes that "a juror may not be challenged for cause based on his views about capital punishment unless those views would prevent or substantially impair the performance of his duties as a juror in accordance with his instructions and his oath."
Edmund v. Florida (1982)
Decision: The Court rules that a defendant cannot be sentenced to death for participating in a felony that leads to murder if the defendant did not participate in the killing, attempt to kill or intend for killing to take place.
Eddings v. Oklahoma (1982)
Decision: The Court vacates the death sentence of inmate, who was 16 years old at the time of the murder, because the trial court refused to allow his attorney to introduce mitigating factors, such as his turbulent family history, beatings by his father and emotional problems.
California v. Ramos (1983)
Decision: The Court rules that a California trial judge did not violate the constitutional rights of a criminal defendant by instructing the jury that the governor could commute a defendant's life sentence to a sentence with the possibility of parole.
Barclay v. Florida (1983)
Decision: The Court rejects the claims of a Florida inmate who alleges his death sentence should be overturned because the trial judge allowed the jury to consider his criminal record as an aggravating factor.
Spaziano v. Florida (1984)
Decision: The Court rules that a trial judge may sentence a criminal defendant to death even though a jury has recommended a life sentence. The Court writes that "the purpose of the death penalty is not frustrated by, or inconsistent with, a scheme in which the imposition of the penalty in individual cases is determined by a judge."
Strickland v. Washington (1984)
Decision: The Court sets the standard for determining when a death sentence can be set aside for ineffective assistance of counsel. The Court writes that "the defendant must show that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different."
Caldwell v. Mississippi (1985)
Decision: The Court sets aside a Mississippi inmate's death sentence after the prosecutor told the jury that an appeals court would review its determination of life or death. The Court writes "it is constitutionally impermissible to rest a death sentence on a determination made by a sentencer who has been led to believe that the responsibility for determining the appropriateness of the defendant's death rests elsewhere."
Ford v. Wainwright (1986)
Decision: The Court rules that the Eighth Amendment prohibits the execution of insane persons.
LegalSpeak: Gregg v. Georgia (1976)
Justice Potter Stewart (plurality): "The most marked indication of society's endorsement of the death penalty for murder is the legislative response to Furman. The legislatures of at least 35 States have enacted new statutes that provide for the death penalty for at least some crimes that result in the death of another person.. These recently adopted statutes have attempted to address the concerns expressed by the Court in Furman primarily (i) by specifying the factors to be weighed and the procedures to be followed in deciding when to impose a capital sentence, or (ii) by making the death penalty mandatory for specified crimes. But all of the post-Furman statutes make clear that capital punishment itself has not been rejected by the elected representatives of the people."
Justice Byron White (concurring): "Imposition of the death penalty is surely an awesome responsibility for any system of justice and those who participate in it. Mistakes will be made and discriminations will occur which will be difficult to explain. However, one of society's most basic tasks is that of protecting the lives of its citizens and one of the most basic ways in which it achieves the task is through criminal laws against murder. I decline to interfere with the manner in which Georgia has chosen to enforce such laws on what is simply an assertion of lack of faith in the ability of the system of justice to operate in a fundamentally fair manner."
Justice William Brennan (dissenting): "Death is not only an unusually severe punishment, unusual in its pain, in its finality, and in its enormity, but it serves no penal purpose more effectively than a less severe punishment; therefore the principle inherent in the Clause that prohibits pointless infliction of excessive punishment when less severe punishment can adequately achieve the same purposes invalidates the punishment. The fatal constitutional infirmity in the punishment of death is that it treats 'members of the human race as nonhumans, as objects to be toyed with and discarded.'"
Justice Thurgood Marshall (dissenting): "The death penalty, unnecessary to promote the goal of deterrence or to further any legitimate notion of retribution, is an excessive penalty forbidden by the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments."
While instruments like the electric chair and guillotine are no longer used, some states still exercise the death penalty, usually by injecting lethal drugs into the condemned inmate (iStock).
Darden v. Wainwright (1986)
Decision: The Court rules that a prosecutor's improper comments during closing arguments in a death penalty case did not justify vacating the sentence. The Court wrote that a sentence should be set aside based on a prosecutor's comments only when the comments "so infected the trial with unfairness as to make the resulting conviction a denial of due process."
Skipper v. South Carolina (1986)
Decision: The Court sets aside a death sentence when the trial judge excluded as mitigating evidence the testimony of jailers regarding the good behavior of the defendant before his trial.
McCleskey v. Kemp (1987)
Decision: The Court ruled that a death penalty defendant cannot invalidate his death penalty based on a broad statistical study showing correlation between race and the death penalty. Rather, the majority rules that the defendant must show "that the decisionmakers in his case acted with discriminatory purpose."
Tison v. Arizona (1987)
Decision: The Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment does not prohibit the death penalty for a defendant who participates in a felony that leads to a murder.
Thompson v. Oklahoma (1988)
Decision: The Court ruled that it is unconstitutional for a state to execute a criminal defendant who was 15 years old when he committed murder.
Penry v. Lynaugh (1989)
Decision: The Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment does not prohibit the execution of a mentally retarded inmate.
Stanford v. Kentucky (1989)
Decision: The Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment does not prohibit the execution of a criminal defendant who was 16 or 17 when he or she committed murder. This decision was overruled by the Court in its 2005 decision Roper v. Simmons.
Coleman v. Thompson (1991)
Decision: In a controversial ruling, the Court ruled that a federal court could not review a death sentence issued by state courts when the defendant's lawyer in his habeas corpus appeal missed the appeal deadline by one day. The case is controversial because some believe the inmate in question, Roger Coleman, was innocent of the convicted crime.
Payne v. Tennessee (1991)
Decision: The Court ruled that a death-penalty jury can hear evidence from the victim's family during the sentencing phase. This case effectively overruled Booth v.
Herrera v. California (1993)
Decision: The Court ruled that "actual innocence" is not a constitutional claim in and of itself in a federal habeas corpus claim. This means that a defendant is not entitled to federal court review of his death sentence unless he or she can show an independent constitutional violation that occurred during the original state court trial proceedings.
Romano v. Oklahoma (1994)
Decision: The Court ruled that it was not a constitutional violation for a capital jury to hear evidence that the defendant had received a prior death sentence for another murder.
Buchanan v. Angellone (1998)
Decision: The Court ruled that a capital defendant was not entitled to jury instructions on specific mitigating factors.
Atkins v. Virginia (2002)
Decision: The Court ruled that a state cannot execute a mentally retarded inmate. This decision overruled the Court's 1989 decision in Penry v. Lynaugh.
Ring v. Arizona (2002)
Decision: The Court ruled that a jury, not a trial judge, should make the factual determinations necessary of the presence of aggravating factors in determining whether a defendant should receive a life in prison or death sentence. This decision overruled the Court's 1990 decision in Walton v. Arizona.
Wiggins v. Smith (2003)
Decision: The Court ruled that a capital defendant's Sixth Amendment right to counsel was violated when his attorney failed to put forth any evidence of mitigating factors during his sentencing phase.
Roper v. Simmons (2005)
Decision: The Court ruled that a state cannot execute an inmate who committed his capital crime when he was a juvenile. The Court overruled its 1989 decision in Stanford v. Kentucky.
Kennedy v. Louisiana (2008)
Decision: The Court struck down a Louisiana statute that provided that child rapists could be executed.
What did the Court decide with respect to criminal three-strikes laws?
The U.S. Supreme Court upheld California's Career Criminal Punishment Act (also known as the "three strikes" law) sentencing law in Ewing v. California (2003) and Lockyer v. Andrade (2003). Under the California law, if a criminal defendant is convicted of at least three felonies, he is subject to the three-strikes law which carries a penalty of 25 years to life.
The cases involved Gary Ewing who stole three golf clubs and Leandro Andrade, who stole $150 worth of videotapes. However, both defendants had multiple criminal convictions in their past, including burglaries, that made them eligible as recidivist offenders under the state law. They challenged their sentences and the three-strikes law as a violation of the Eighth Amendment's cruel and unusual punishment clause.
The Court rejected the argument that the defendants' sentences violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. "The gross disproportionality principle reserves a constitutional violation for only the extraordinary case," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote for the Court in Andrade. In her Ewing opinion, Justice O'Connor explained that states have the right to pass laws protecting the public from career criminals: "When the California Legislature enacted the three strikes law, it made a judgment that protecting the public safety requires incapacitating criminals who have already been convicted of at least one serious or violent crime. Nothing in the Eighth
In Roper v. Simmons the Supreme Court ruled that inmates who committed their crimes while they were legally juveniles cannot be executed for said crimes (iStock).
Amendment prohibits California from making that choice." She also cited statistics showing that a disturbing number of inmates committed repeat offenses upon release from incarceration.