Amdt8.2.2.1 Death Penalty: Overview

Eighth Amendment:

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

The Court’s 1972 decision in Furman v. Georgia,1 finding constitutional deficiencies in the manner in which the death penalty was arrived at but not holding the death penalty unconstitutional per se, was a watershed in capital punishment jurisprudence. In the long run the ruling may have had only minor effect in determining who is sentenced to death and who is actually executed, but it had the indisputable effect of constitutionalizing capital sentencing law and of involving federal courts in extensive review of capital sentences.2 Prior to 1972, constitutional law governing capital punishment was relatively simple and straightforward. Capital punishment was constitutional, and there were few grounds for constitutional review. Furman and the five 1976 follow-up cases that reviewed state laws revised in light of Furman reaffirmed the constitutionality of capital punishment per se, but also opened up several avenues for constitutional review. Since 1976, the Court has issued a welter of decisions attempting to apply and reconcile the sometimes conflicting principles it had announced: that sentencing discretion must be confined through application of specific guidelines that narrow and define the category of death-eligible defendants and thereby prevent arbitrary imposition of the death penalty, but that jury discretion must also be preserved in order to weigh the mitigating circumstances of individual defendants who fall within the death-eligible class.

Footnotes

  1.  Jump to essay-1408 U.S. 238 (1972).
  2.  Jump to essay-2See Carol S. Steiker and Jordan M. Steiker, Sober Second Thoughts: Reflections on Two Decades of Constitutional Regulation of Capital Punishment, 109 Harv. L. Rev. 355 (1995).