A Brief History
On June 29, 1972, the Supreme Court of the United States stunned the nation by ruling in Furman v. Georgia that the death penalty violated the 8th and 14th Amendments. This decision basically outlawed capital punishment until each state that wanted to reinstate it reworked their laws and procedures to meet Supreme Court guidelines.
It seems that over 200 years of previous experience had not perfected the procedure. The court found judicial practices so arbitrary and inconsistent that a grossly uneven administration of capital punishment was the result. So much so, that it constituted cruel and unusual punishment.
In wake of their ruling, those convicts on death row awaiting execution were given a reprieve since they had been sentenced under a system found to be unconstitutional. Even Sirhan Sirhan, the murderer of Robert F. Kennedy, was spared.
Over the next few years, 37 states rewrote their capital punishment laws and procedures, and by 1976, those stated had re-entered the legal people-killing business. Currently, 31 states still maintain capital punishment, although vigorous campaigns have been mounted to make all forms of execution illegal in the United States.
Greater impetus for the movement to ban capital punishment is partially the result of botched executions, where the condemned was seen by witnesses to be writhing in pain for extended lengths of time. Drug companies have also been refusing to sell the drugs used for lethal injection to those states that use that form of capital punishment, which has created a whole new set of problems as new concoctions are being formulated to efficiently kill the condemned.
Medical and scientific advancements in DNA have brought to light that some executed criminals were innocent after all. This sad fact together with the many non-death penalty cases that have been overturned as a result of DNA analysis have cast a dark shadow on the U.S. legal (we will not call it “justice”) system.
Accusations of prosecutorial misconduct, police misconduct and mistaken or purposely misleading testimony by “experts” have also created serious doubts about the fairness (or lack thereof) in death penalty cases. Even people who have no moral objection to killing people convicted of heinous crimes are now troubled by the specter of all too frequent mistakes and miscarriages of justice. In Nebraska, for example, the state legislature overrode the veto of the governor and outlawed capital punishment in that otherwise conservative state.
Question for students (and subscribers): Should you be for the death penalty or against it? What circumstances, if any, warrant an execution? Tell us why you think that way in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see:
Drimmer, Frederick. Executions in America: Over Three Hundred Years of Crime and Capital Punishment in America. Skyhorse Publishing, 2014.
The featured image in this article, a graph of the number of executions each year by the method used in the United States and the earlier colonies from 1608 to 2004, has been released into the public domain by its author, Evil Monkey at English Wikipedia. This applies worldwide.
You can also watch a video version of this article exclusively at https://thearmchairhistorian.uscreen.io/programs/us-supreme-court-rules-death-penalty-unconstitutional_1mp4-752e3f on Armchair History TV.