The U.S. Supreme Court and the Death Penalty

Authored by: Katherine J. Bennett , H. Chris Tecklenburg

Routledge Handbook on Capital Punishment

Print publication date:  December  2017
Online publication date:  December  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138651579
eBook ISBN: 9781315624723
Adobe ISBN:


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In 1972, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Furman v. Georgia that the death penalty as imposed under existing laws was unconstitutional, amounting to cruel and unusual punishment. The primary concern expressed in the 5–4 Furman decision was that the death penalty was being administered in an arbitrary or capricious manner, and over 600 capital punishment sentences in death penalty states were vacated. Four years later, the Court ruled that state death penalty statutes that show that the punishment can be administered reliably and not arbitrarily are constitutional ( Gregg v. Georgia, 1976). Accordingly, states have attempted to construct statutes that pass judicial scrutiny and to apply the death penalty to offenders in an equitable fashion; however, by 2015, at least one justice, Justice Breyer, concluded that the past 40 years have shown anything but reliability and consistency (dissenting opinion in Glossip et al. v. Gross et al. [2015]). This chapter reviews the past 40 years and the various death penalty issues that have come before the Supreme Court. Well over 140 death penalty cases have been decided in this time span, with the Court overruling itself in several decisions.

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