Constitutionality of the
Death Penalty in America
The 1960s brought challenges to the fundamental legality of the death penalty. Before then, the Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution 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 decided in Trop v. Dulles (356 U.S. 86) that the interpretation of 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). 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 punishment.
Suspending the Death Penalty
The issue of the arbitrariness of the death penalty was brought before the Supreme Court in 1972 in Furman v. Georgia (408 U.S. 238). Furman. bringing an Eighth Amendment challenge, argued that capital cases resulted in arbitrary and capricious sentencing.
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 without any guidance as to how to exercise that 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.