Supreme Court Decisions

The Death Penalty

Chapter 17

In This Chapter

Capital Punishment in Context

Supreme Court Decisions

Research on Capital Murder Trials

Racial Disparities and the Death Penalty

The Death Penalty as a Deterrent to Murder

Errors and Mistakes in Death Penalty Cases

Capital Punishment in Context


U.S. one of few countries with death penalty

32 states, federal government, military authorize use of death penalty

Four states responsible for 59% of all U.S. executions since 1976: TX, OK, FL, VA; only for aggravated murder

Texas account for 38%

Under federal law, capital crimes include treason, espionage, murder in government official, using WMD

Supreme Court Decisions


Lethal injections, gas, electrocution, hanging, firing squad

Executions are rare

Perception of strong public support for the death penalty

Influences decision-making of politicians

Occasionally used by the Supreme Court as an indicator of prevailing “standards of decency” among the American public

Death penalty is costly


Supreme Court Decisions


Constitutional Challenges (Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments)



Furman v. Georgia (1972): United States Supreme Court unconstitutional as then administered



Gregg v. Georgia (1976): Guided discretion; bifurcated proceedings



Atkins v. Virginia (2002): Eliminated death sentence for execution of mentally retarded prisoners



Ring v. Arizona (2002): Only jury can make decisions regarding capital punishment



Roper v. Simmons (2005): Prohibits execution of juveniles



Kennedy v. Louisiana (2008): Prohibits execution for child rapist, unless child dies



Baze V, Rees (2008): Lethal injection does not inflect unnecessary or wanton pain




Should we execute the elderly?

Most inmates die of natural causes on death row before they are sent to the execution chamber.

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