The U.S. Supreme Court and the Death Penalty

From the time the industrial revolution became the engine of change in markets, and consequently in societies, leading to greater education levels among the masses, capital punishment has been a controversial and often debated legal issue among scholars, attorneys, victims, convicts, politicians and the courts. Some argue that as a civilization grows and advances, it must create more humane criminal justice systems that protect the lives of even those that would commit unspeakably horrific acts of violence and destruction. Others contend that the death penalty serves as a deterrent to those who may otherwise kill with impunity, and justice requires equivalent retribution for crimes of the magnitude considered for the death penalty.

The first recorded document remaining from ancient times that officially codifies capital punishment was Hammurabi’s Code from ancient Babylon, which proclaimed the famous quote “an eye for an eye.” Since that time thousands of years ago, when the ultimate penalty was indeed a very common punishment, to the present day, governments have either outlawed or continually refined the standards by which the worst offenses are rated and dealt with. These include the crimes that meet the standard, the citizens eligible for punishment, and the methods used for execution. In the United States, the Supreme Court has visited the matter of constitutionality several times over the years, when it has agreed to review various cases pertaining to this lightening rod of an issue.

Furman v. Georgia was a 5-4 split decision in 1972, whereby the court ruled that the application of the death penalty by states across the country was deemed to be “cruel and unusual punishment.” This determination followed a 5-year period where there were no executions and many thought the practice would be banned. The next major milestone took place in 1976, in Gregg v. Georgia, where 6 of the 9 justices rejected an appeal by a man convicted of the robbery and homicide of two individuals. In the decision, the court declared that executions in and of themselves do not violate the Eighth Amendment. Conversely, the following year the case of Coker v. Georgia was brought before the court in order to settle the matter of whether rape qualified as a capital offense and this time, it was decided that it was “grossly disproportionate and excessive” in relation to the crime. Over the next three decades, the number of executions steadily increased and is now commonplace in the United States.

It appears that based on the decisions from the third branch of the federal government during the 1970s, the bar has definitively been set at murder. However, it should be noted that each state treats capital punishment differently, as evidenced by eight states abolishing the practice altogether, and a relatively higher number of cases in the southern region. One thing is for certain though, that regardless of whether or not one finds the death penalty to be inhumane or simply justice being served, executions in the United States will continue well into the 21st Century.

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