The death penalty has long been a point of contention in the United States. Capital punishment across the country was halted in 1972 when the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) decided Furman v. Georgia. In that case, a split Supreme Court made two important rulings:
- Application of the death penalty was arbitrary and discriminatory
- Certain state death penalty statutes were unconstitutional
This court decision opened the door for state courts to revise death penalty statutes.
The federal government's moratorium pointed to deficiencies in state laws, and lawmakers sought to update their laws to please federal courts. Reinstatement of the death penalty and death row soon followed.
Reinstatement of the Death Penalty in the Wake of Furman
Advocates of capital punishment began proposing new statutes following Furman. They believed these statutes would end the arbitrariness of capital sentences.
Florida led the way in reinstating the death penalty. Its state legislature rewrote its death penalty statute only five months after Furman. Shortly after, 34 other states enacted new death penalty statutes.
To address the unconstitutionality of unguided jury discretion, some states removed all discretion by mandating capital punishment for those convicted of capital crimes. This was found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Woodson v. North Carolina.
Capital Punishment and Sentencing Guidelines
Other states began to limit discretion by providing sentencing guidelines for judges and juries considering death sentences. Such guidelines allowed for the introduction of aggravating factors and mitigating factors in sentencing.
In 1976, the Supreme Court approved these discretionary guidelines in Gregg v. Georgia, Jurek v. Texas, and Proffitt v. Florida, collectively referred to as the Gregg decision. This landmark decision held that the new death penalty statutes in Florida, Georgia, and Texas were constitutional, thus reinstating the death penalty in those states. Additionally, the Court maintained that the death penalty itself was constitutional under the Eighth Amendment.
Reforms Under Gregg
The Court also approved three reforms in the Gregg decision. The first was bifurcated trials, in which there were separate deliberations for the guilt and penalty phases of the trial.
Another reform was the practice of automatic appellate review of convictions and sentences.
The final procedural reform was proportionality review, a practice that assists states in identifying and eliminating disparities in sentencing. The state appellate court can use this process to compare the sentence in a capital case with other cases within the state. This measures if a sentence is disproportionate.
Because the Supreme Court acknowledged the reforms, some states wishing to reinstate their death penalty sentences included them in revised statutes. However, inclusion was not required by SCOTUS. Some of the resulting new statutes include variations on the procedural reforms found in Gregg.
The 10-year moratorium on executions ended on January 17, 1977, with the execution of Gary Gilmore by firing squad in Utah. Gilmore didn't challenge his death sentence. That same year, Oklahoma became the first state to adopt lethal injection as a new method of execution for death row inmates. It would be five more years until Charles Brooks became the first person executed by lethal injection under the jurisdiction of Texas on December 2, 1982.
Let a Criminal Law Attorney Help You Defend Against Your Criminal Case and the Potential Sentence of Death
Death penalty cases have generated significant constitutional review by the courts. Results have ranged from a nationwide moratorium to the general reinstatement of the death penalty. Some believe that this sentence is cruel and unusual punishment. Others believe it is justice well served.
Are you dealing with death penalty laws as a result of a capital offense? Do you need legal advice or have any questions? Contact an experienced criminal justice attorney to help protect your rights.