Some serious criminal offenses are punishable by death, most often violent homicides where it is determined by the jury that the convicted offender lacks remorse. Capital punishment, commonly referred to as the death penalty, remains controversial and has been outlawed in some states. The following articles and resources provide a brief history of death penalty laws, notable court challenges and current statistics.
The death penalty was commonly used in Europe and the early days of the territories in the Americas, even for minor crimes of theft and for acts that wouldn't be criminal today, such as blasphemy. There was considerable variation in death penalty laws from colony to colony. Cesare Beccaria's 1767 essay On Crimes and Punishment led to the abolition of the death penalty in Austria and Tuscany. While there was no abolition in the United States, the essay's influence did result in the use commonly being restricted to very serious crimes.
In the 1800s some states took executions out of the public eye and use was restricted or eliminated in other states. Previously mandatory death penalty crimes were replaced with discretionary death penalty punishments.
Then n the 1900s several states outlawed the death penalty, but panic in the wake of the Russian Revolution led to its reinstatement in some jurisdictions. Throughout the Depression and Prohibition the death penalty was used more frequently.
The popularity of the death penalty began to decline in the 1950's as many allied nations outlawed its use. Furman v. Georgia is a 1972 Supreme Court case that (along with two others) found that a Georgia death penalty statute providing the jury full discretion in sentencing could result in arbitrary sentencing. The court, in a deeply split decision, found that the statute was cruel and unusual, violating the Eighth Amendment. With this decision the Supreme Court voided 40 death penalty statutes and suspended the death penalty since the statutes were no longer valid.
Reinstated Death Penalty
Following the Furman decision Florida rewrote its death penalty statutes, shortly after which 34 other states enacted their own revised death penalty laws. These laws avoided the arbitrariness complained of in Furman by mandating capital punishment for those convicted of capital crimes. This method was later found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Woodson v. North Carolina. Other states issued guidelines to judges and juries. The Supreme Court upheld this system in Gregg v. Georgia and several other cases, leading to the reinstatement of the death penalty under the new sentencing guidelines and also finding the death penalty itself constitutional under the Eighth Amendment.
Since this time subsequent decisions have found that the execution of the mentally retarded is prohibited under the Eighth Amendment (Atkins v. Virginia) as is the execution of persons who were under the age of 18 when committing capital crimes (Roper v. Simmons.)