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Capital Punishment Issues in the U.S. Supreme Court

The following is an overview of United States Supreme Court jurisprudence regarding capital punishment. The case is linked to Westlaw. The additional links provided allow users to access the cases by FindLaw and Lexis.

The National Judicial College would like to thank Professor Joseph L. Hoffmann of Indiana University - Bloomington for his work in developing this guide.
     

I.  History: McGautha, Furman, and Gregg

  • McGautha v. California, 402 U.S. 183 (1971) [FindLaw] [Lexis]. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld California’s death penalty system (6-3) against a facial constitutional challenge that it fails to comply with due process and the “rule of law” because the jury is allowed to render a death sentence without any legal standards, or even any legal guidance, for making the capital sentencing decision. 
      
  • Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972) [FindLaw] [Lexis].  The U.S. Supreme Court held that Georgia’s death penalty system, which gave the sentencer complete discretion over the punishment, violated the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause of the 8th Amendment. The justices wrote nine separate opinions in the case. Only two (Justices Brennan and Marshall) would have held the death penalty to be unconstitutional in all cases. The other three in the majority (Justices Douglas, Stewart, and White) found the death penalty unconstitutional as administered under the current statutes.
     
  • Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976) [FindLaw] [Lexis] together with Proffitt v. Florida, 428 U.S. 242 (1976) [FindLaw] [Lexis] Jurek v. Texas, 428 U.S. 262 (1976) [FindLaw] [Lexis] Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U.S. 280 (1976) [FindLaw] [Lexis] Roberts v. Louisiana, 428 U.S. 325 (1976) [FindLaw] [Lexis]The U.S. Supreme Court held that “guided discretion” death penalty systems adopted in Georgia and Florida, similar to the American Law Institute’s Model Penal Code Section 210.6 (now removed) and providing for statutory lists of aggravating and mitigating circumstances, complied with the 8th Amendment. Death penalty system based on statutory “questions” to be answered by the sentencer, as adopted in Texas, also held to comply with the 8th Amendment. “Mandatory” death penalty systems adopted in North Carolina and Louisiana, which remove all discretion from the sentencer, held to violate the 8th Amendment.
      

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