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Associated Press

On This Day: Supreme Court Declares Capital Punishment Statutes Unconstitutional

June 29, 2011 05:00 AM
by Erin Harris
On June 29, 1972, the United States Supreme Court ruled that several death penalty laws were unconstitutional, a ruling that halted all executions in the U.S. for five years.

Capital Punishment Put on Hold

William Henry Furman, a mentally ill black man, was found guilty of first-degree murder in Savannah, Ga., and sentenced to death in 1968. He argued that Georgia’s death penalty law was unconstitutional, and five years later his case reached the Supreme Court of the United States.

In the case of Furman v. Georgia, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 vote with nine separate opinions, held that the application of certain statutes lead to “arbitrary punishments” and therefore violated the Constitution.

"[I]t is ‘cruel and unusual’ to apply the death penalty—or any other penalty—selectively to minorities whose numbers are few, who are outcasts of society, and who are unpopular, but whom society is willing to see suffer,” wrote Justice William Douglas.

The court held specifically that the application of a Georgia state law violated the Eighth Amendment by inflicting “unusual punishment” on defendant William Furman, who was charged with first-degree murder and sentenced to death in 1968 despite his mentally deficient status.

The court ruled that the manner in which the law was applied also violated the 14th Amendment’s right to due process because Furman’s trial only lasted one day. The court held that a defendant in a capital case should be entitled to a sentencing phase separate from the initial deliberations of the case.

Furman v. Georgia was consolidated with two other cases, Jackson v. Georgia and Branch v. Texas, in which the defendants—who, like Furman, were black—had been found guilty of rape and sentenced to death. Again, the Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty law had been applied arbitrarily and suggested that racial discrimination was at play.

The decision did not outlaw the death penalty; only two justices, William J. Brennan and Thurgood Marshall, ruled that the death penalty is unconstitutional in all cases. The decision did “effectively voided 40 death penalty statutes, thereby commuting the sentences of 629 death row inmates around the country,” according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

The Return of Capital Punishment

In 1979, Time magazine reported on the adjustments that legislators made to the law after 1972 in order to fix statutes that had been regarded as unconstitutional. “Typically, the laws allow juries to hand down a death sentence only after weighing ‘aggravating circumstances,’ such as the murder of a police officer or the torture of a victim, and ‘mitigating circumstances,’ such as a killer’s age or emotional state,” the magazine reported.

The Supreme Court approved new laws in 1976, thus reinstating capital punishment. Gary Gilmore was the first person to be executed under the new laws, declaring that that “he wanted to die ‘like a man,’” according to Time.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, there have been 1,234 prisoners put to death in the U.S. between Gilmore’s execution in 1977 and the end of 2010. Among states, Texas consistently has had the highest number of executions each year.

Capital Punishment in the Courts Today

On Jan. 31, 2000, Illinois Gov. George Ryan ordered a halt on all executions in the state, and later commuted the death sentences of 167 prisoners. “Our capital system is haunted by the demon of error,” Ryan said.

The New York Court of Appeals overturned the state's 1995 capital punishment law in 2004 on the basis that a “deadlock provision” in the law had the effect of coercing jurors to vote in favor of the death penalty. The New York state Senate has since approved new versions of a capital punishment law, but they have yet to pass through the State Assembly, and the absence of a death penalty is not currently a hot political issue in New York.

In April 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the lethal injection used in Kentucky does not constitute “cruel and unusual punishment.”

In June 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that capital punishment is not a constitutionally valid penalty for the rape of a child. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy claimed that there's "a distinction between intentional first-degree murder on the one hand and nonhomicide crimes against individual persons."

In March 2009, New Mexico became the 15th state to abolish the death penalty. Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson had supported the death penalty in the past, but cited DNA evidence as a rationale for abandoning the practice.

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