Capital punishment across the country was halted in 1972 when a split U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty, as carried out by the states, was arbitrary and discriminatory. Although the separate opinions by Justices Brennan and Marshall stated that the death penalty itself was unconstitutional, the overall conclusion in Furman v. Georgia was that the specific death penalty statutes were unconstitutional. That decision by the Court opened the door for states to revise death penalty statutes to eliminate the problems cited in Furman.
Since the Court's moratorium pointed specifically to deficiencies in state laws, many lawmakers sought to update their laws. Reinstatement of the death penalty soon followed.
Reinstatement of the Death Penalty in the Wake of Furman
Advocates of capital punishment began proposing new statutes that they believed would end arbitrariness of capital sentences. The states were led by Florida, which 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 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
In addition to sentencing guidelines, the Court approved three additional reforms in the Gregg decision. The first was bifurcated trials, in which there are separate deliberations for the guilt and penalty phases of the trial. Only after the jury determines that the defendant is guilty of capital murder does it decide in a second trial whether the defendant should be sentenced to death or given a lesser sentence of prison time.
Another reform was the practice of automatic appellate review of convictions and sentence.
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 case being reviewed with other cases within the state, to see if it is disproportionate. Because the reforms were acknowledged by the Supreme Court, some states wishing to reinstate their death penalty sentences included them in revised statutes. However, inclusion was not required by the Court. Therefore, some of the resulting new statutes include variations on the procedural reforms found in Gregg.
The 10-year moratorium on executions that began with the Jackson and Witherspoon decisions 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 means of execution, though it would be five more years until Charles Brooks became the first person executed by lethal injection in Texas on December 2, 1982.
Let an Attorney Help You Defend Against Your Criminal Charges
As you can see, death penalty cases have generated significant constitutional review by the courts, with results ranging from a nationwide moratorium to the general reinstatement of the death penalty. If you've been charged with a crime, even if you're not facing the death penalty, having an experienced criminal defense attorney is critical when it comes to protecting your rights and ensuring a fair process.