The death penalty has a long and troubled history. It's a penalty that society wants to embrace for heinous crimes, but many also fear its finality and question its cruelty. Evolving moral standards have changed as to what society considers unacceptably cruel, so it's no wonder that the application of the death penalty continues to change as society makes moral decisions about its use. Below is a discussion of the developments in how the U.S. administers the death penalty from the days of the moratorium in 1967 to present day.
Developments in the Death Penalty: The Moratorium
In 1967, there was an unofficial moratorium on the death penalty. During the 1960's there was a nationwide movement against capital punishment, which came to a head with the execution of Louis Jose Monge. While Monge had murdered his wife and three of his ten children, he nevertheless became a sympathetic figure due to the news coverage of the details of the horror of his death in the gas chamber. After that Monge's death, all executions voluntarily stopped.
Then in 1972 the Supreme Court placed an official moratorium on the death penalty with matter of Furman v. Georgia. The Furman decision combined three death penalty cases, where three black men had been sentenced to death, one for murdering a white man and the two others for raping white women. The Supreme Court questioned whether racial bias played a role in the men being sentenced to die.
As a result of this decision, the Supreme Court voided forty state death penalty statutes. The sentences of 629 death row inmates were commuted from death to life in prison.
Developments in the Death Penalty: Reinstatement
The moratorium came to an end in 1976 when the Supreme Court again reviewed the question of whether the death penalty violated the Eighth Amendment in the matter of Gregg v. Georgia. In the Gregg case, the Court decided that the imposition of the death penalty was not cruel and unusual punishment if:
Following the Gregg marked the end of the moratorium on capital punishment, as 37 states enacted new death penalty laws. Since Gregg the persons who can be executed has continually been refined.
Developments in Who Receives the Death Penalty Since Gregg
The Mentally Impaired
The Court has struggled with whether or not a person who has a mental defect can be executed. In 1986, the Supreme Court ruled in Ford v. Wainwright (1986) that it was unconstitutional to execute someone who was insane. However, in Penry v. Lynaugh (1989), the Court concluded that the Eighth Amendment does not categorically prohibit the execution of the mentally retarded. That changed in 2002 with Atkins v. Virginia which held that execution of the the mentally retarded violated the Eighth Amendment. Following along the lines of protecting the mentally defective, the Court ruled in 2018 in Madison v. Alabama that a person who developed dementia while on death row could no longer be executed.
The Court has held that execution for crimes commented when a person was fifteen or younger was unconstitutional. However, the Court held in Stanford v. Kentucky (1989) that the Eighth Amendment did not prohibit execution of persons who who were sixteen or seventeen when they committed an excutable offense. Citing changes in standards of decency, the Court held in 2005 in the matter of Roper v. Simmons that execution for a person under the age of 18 is cruel and unusual punishment.
When No Death Occurs
Back in 1977, in Coker v. Georgia (1977) the court removed the death penalty for persons who were convicted of adult rape when no death occurred. That prohibition was applied to child rape in 2008 with Kennedy v. Louisiana.
Federal Legislation Concerning Death Penalty
While the courts have pulled back from the imposition of the death penalty in a number of cases, the federal government has expanded the death penalty and sought to limit court interference. The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 expanded the federal death penalty to include some 60 crimes that could not be could now receive capital punishment. Then following the Oklahoma City Bombing, the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 was enacted to limit review of death penalty cases by the courts.
Lethal Injection Executions
A modern development in the application of the death penalty has been the advent of the use of drugs in the process. In an effort to seek more humane and relatively painless methods of execution, Oklahoma passed the first statute authorizing the use of lethal injections as a method of execution in 1977. However, it was not until 1982 when lethal injection was used for the first time in the execution of Charles Brooks Jr. in Texas.
While there have been challenges to lethal injections, the Supreme Court has upheld the use of the drugs necessary for a lethal injection. In Baze v. Rees (2008), the Court ruled that the use of lethal injection for capital punishment did not violate the Eighth Amendment. The Supreme Court re-affirmed that decision in Glossip v. Gross (2015).
Concerned About the Possibility of the Death Penalty or Another Sentence? Contact an Attorney
The application and method of the death penalty is an evolving area. The laws change so rapidly, it's important to have the most accurate information possible. If you've been charged with a crime that carries the possibility of the death penalty, or any other serious penalty, you'll want to speak to an experienced criminal defense lawyer right away.