Constitutionality of the Death Penalty

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Constitutionality of the Death Penalty
Case Law and Prosecution

There has been much controversy concerning the death penalty both within society and the judicial system. Courts throughout the nation have waivered back and forth on the subject. Several times in various states the death penalty has been abolished, re-instated, and vice-versa. From 1976 to present day the death penalty has been in effect federally, but that does not mean that the law will remain in place for good. There are still several issues concerning the death penalty; such as the method upon which death is inflicted. Other issues include whether or not juveniles and/or mentally handicapped individuals should be considered for the death penalty, and the inability to correct wrongful convictions (i.e. if the individual is dead there is no way to make amends with the innocent condemned.).

Before the 1960’s the Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments were interpreted as permitting the death penalty. Conversely, in the early 1960’s it was suggested that the death penalty was "Cruel and unusual" punishment, and therefore unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment. In 1968 the Court heard two cases dealing with the diplomacy 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). In this case, 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 prohibited only if prosecutors could show that the juror's attitude toward capital punishment would prevent him or her from making an impartial decision about the punishment.

In 1972, the Supreme Court decided the landmark case of Furman v. Georgia (408 U.S. 238). In a 5-4 decision, the Court's one-page per curiam opinion held that the implication of the death penalty in these cases constituted cruel and unusual punishment and violated the Constitution. In the following four years, 37 states enacted new death penalty laws aimed at overcoming the court's concerns about arbitrary imposition of the death penalty. The death penalty did not spend too much time on the sidelines, however. In 1976, the Court reinstated the death penalty in Gregg v Georgia (428 U.S. 153). The Court set out two broad guidelines that legislatures must follow in order to craft a constitutional capital sentencing scheme. First, the design must provide objective criteria to direct and limit the sentencing discretion. The objectiveness of these criteria must in turn be ensured by appellate review of all death sentences. Second, the proposal must allow the sentencer (whether judge or jury) to take into account the character and record of an individual defendant.

July 2nd, 1976 could have very well marked the foundation of the United State’s modern legal conversation about the death penalty:
Major ensuing developments include forbidding the death penalty for rape (Coker v. Georgia), restricting the death penalty in cases of felony murder (Enmund v. Florida), exempting the mentally handicapped (Atkins v. Virginia), and juvenile murderers (Roper v. Simmons) from the death penalty, removing virtually all limitations on the presentation of mitigating evidence (Lockett v. Ohio, Holmes v. South Carolina), requiring precision in the definition of aggravating factors (Godfrey v. Georgia, Walton v. Arizona), and requiring the jury to decide whether aggravating factors have been proved beyond a reasonable doubt (Ring...
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