Death: The Ultimate Sanction
1. Discuss the history of capital punishment in the United States.
2. Describe the characteristics of people executed in the United States since 1977 and on death row today.
3. Discuss the politics influencing capital punishment.
4. List and summarize the major U.S. Supreme Court decisions that influenced capital punishment legislation.
5. Summarize the arguments for and against the death penalty.
6. Describe the five ways capital punishment jurisdictions weigh aggravating and mitigating circumstances to determine if a death sentence is appropriate.
7. Describe the death penalty appeals process.
8. Summarize Liebman’s findings on the frequency of errors in capital punishment cases.
9. Summarize the issues surrounding juvenile executions.
10. Discuss the Supreme Court’s reasoning for banning the execution of the mentally retarded.
History of Capital Punishment
Death Row Today
Methods of Execution
· Lethal injection.
· Lethal gas.
· Firing squad.
Politics and Capital Punishment
· Public support for the death penalty was the lowest in 1966 (42%) and reached its highest level in 1994 (80%).
· Support for the death penalty seems to be dropping due to the problems found that result in people being freed from death row and also the possible alternative of life in prison without parole.
· In Illinois, more people were released from death row due to mistaken convictions than have been executed. The Governor in 2000, due to this problem, granted clemency to more than 150 death row inmates.
· Supreme Court Justice O’Connor even questioned the use of the death penalty when so many innocent people were being released from death row.
· Most people do not support the death penalty for juvenile offenders.
· Some states prohibit the death penalty for offenders under the age of 18.
· Other states execute offenders as long as they were 16 years of age or older at the time of the offense.
· Only the U.S. and Iran currently execute juvenile offenders.
2005 Roper v. Simmons prohibited executing juvenile offenders
Banning the Execution of People with Mental Retardation
· In 2002, the Supreme Court banned the execution of mentally retarded offenders, as it constituted cruel and unusual punishment.
· It is up to the states though to define mental retardation.
Capital punishment has been imposed throughout history for crimes ranging from horse stealing and witchcraft to crimes against humanity and murder. Before the 18th century, torture often preceded death. In the 18th century, use of the death penalty diminished as philosophers argued that punishment should fit the crime. After World War I, states reinstated use of the death penalty to deter threats to capitalism, and criminologists argued that capital punishment was a necessary social measure. After World War II, however, sentiment for capital punishment faded and constitutional challenges surfaced, culminating in the Supreme Court decision of Furman v. Georgia in 1972.
As of January 1, 2004, 885 people have been executed in the United States since Gary Gilmore’s execution in January 1977. The peak year was 1999 when 98 people were executed. Thirty-five percent (313) of all executions have taken place in Texas. The South leads the United States with 728 executions. Only 1.2 percent of all the people executed since 1977 have been female; 57 percent were white, 34 percent black, 7 percent Hispanic, 1.5 percent American Indian, and less than 1 percent Asian. Today, 3,504 prisoners are on death row. Forty-one percent of the nation’s death row population is in three states: California (632), Texas (451), and Florida (381). Ninety-nine percent of all prisoners on death row are male, with whites predominating (46 Percent). Prisoners spend an average of 19 years and 7 months on death row.
Among the influences on capital punishment are public opinion; executive, legislative, and judicial changes; and professional organizations. Public opinion continues to support capital punishment, with more people choosing life imprisonment as an option. More governors are granting clemency, and fewer death sentences have been imposed. In the wake of the Illinois moratorium on capital punishment in 2000, professional organizations and legislators across the country are calling for death penalty moratoriums, funding study of capital punishment, granting death row inmates access to DNA testing, affording extra assistance to lawyers who handle capital cases, raising the amount of financial compensation that states provide innocent people found to have been erroneously convicted, allowing prosecutors to seek life without parole instead of the death penalty, and barring the execution of juveniles.
Three landmark cases that influenced capital punishment were Furman v. Georgia (1972), Gregg v. Georgia (1976), and Ring v. Arizona (2002). In Furman v. Georgia, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that capital punishment, as imposed by Georgia, constituted cruel and unusual punishment—Georgia’s death penalty statute gave the sentencing authority (judge or trial jury) complete freedom to impose a death sentence without standards or guidelines. As a result of the Furman ruling, state death penalty statutes took two forms: mandatory death penalty or sentencing based on guided discretion. In Woodson v. North Carolina and Roberts v. Louisiana, the Court rejected mandatory statutes. However, in Gregg v. Georgia, the Court ruled that Georgia’s newly guided discretion death penalty legislation was not unconstitutional. In Ring v. Arizona, the Court held that only juries, not judges, can determine the presence of aggravating factors to be weighed in the capital sentencing process. The Court held that a defendant may not receive a penalty that exceeds the maximum penalty that he or she would have received if punished according to the facts in the jury verdict.
Arguments in favor of the death penalty include the following: It deters rational people from becoming habitual killers; it is “just” punishment for taking someone’s life; it is constitutional as long as it is achieved with due process of law; it reduces the amount of time a person spends on death row; it protects society from feared offenders; it is more humane than life imprisonment; and it is almost impossible for an innocent person to be executed. Arguments against the death penalty include the following: It violates human rights; it does not deter violent crime; it is implemented arbitrarily and unfairly; it falls disproportionately on racial minorities; it actually boosts the murder rate by promoting homicides in the months following an execution; not everyone wants vengeance; and it costs too much to support a capital trial, appeals, and execution.
There are five ways capital punishment jurisdictions weigh aggravating and mitigating circumstances to determine if a death sentence is appropriate: (1) the judge and jury may weigh mitigating and aggravating circumstances by what is known as the “sufficiency” standard; (2) aggravating circumstances may outweigh mitigating circumstances by a preponderance of the evidence; (3) aggravating circumstances may outweigh mitigating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt; (4) at least one aggravating circumstance may be found to exist; and (5) different sentencing structures that exist in Oregon, Texas, and Virginia may be used.
Death penalty cases may pass through as many as 10 courts and across three stages: trial and direct review, state postconviction appeals, and federal habeas corpus appeals.
Liebman found that the frequency of errors in capital punishment cases is 68 percent. More than two of every three capital judgments reviewed by the courts during a 23-year study period were found to be seriously flawed. Ten states (Alabama, Arizona, California, Georgia, Indiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Montana, Oklahoma, and Wyoming) had overall error rates of 75 percent or higher. Almost 1,000 of the cases sent back for retrial ended in sentences less than death, and 87 ended in not guilty verdicts.
Almost 70 percent of Americans oppose the execution of juveniles. Professional organizations oppose the imposition of the death penalty for crimes committed by juveniles, pointing to the latest medical research from Harvard University that found that the frontal and prefrontal lobes of the brain that regulate impulse control and judgment change dramatically between the ages of 12 and 22. Today, 15 states and the federal government prohibit by statute the execution of offenders under the age of 18. In the current era of capital punishment (1976 through January 1, 2004), 22 people were executed for offenses they committed as juveniles. Today, there are 82 death row inmates (all male) sentenced as juveniles. The United States Supreme Court first addressed the constitutionality of applying the death penalty to juvenile offenders in 1988 in Thompson v. Oklahoma. The Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to sentence a 15-year-old to death. The following year, in Stanford v. Kentucky and Wilkins v. Missouri, the Court held that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment did not forbid imposition of the death penalty for crimes committed by people at 16 and 17 years of age. Worldwide today, only the United States and Iran continue to cling to their rights to impose the death penalty on people who commit their crimes while still juveniles.
In 2002, the Court held in Atkins v. Virginia that execution of the mentally retarded is cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth Amendment, because a national consensus has developed against executing the mentally retarded. The Court said that the large number of States prohibiting the execution of mentally retarded people provided powerful evidence that our society views mentally retarded offenders as categorically less culpable than the average criminal.
Capital punishment: Lawful imposition of the death penalty.
Capital crime: A crime for which the death penalty may, but need not necessarily, be imposed.
Clemency: Kindness, mercy, forgiveness, or leniency, usually relating to criminal acts.
Commutation: A change of a legal penalty to a lesser one; e.g., from death to life imprisonment.
Death row: A prison area housing inmates who have been sentenced to death.
Mandatory death penalty: A death sentence that the legislature has required to be imposed upon people convicted of certain offenses.
Guided discretion: Decision making bounded by general guidelines, rules, or laws.
Bifurcated trial: Two separate hearings for different issues in a trial, one for guilt and the other for punishment.
Mitigating circumstances: Factors that, although not justifying or excusing an action, may reduce the culpability of the offender.
Aggravating circumstances: Factors that may increase the culpability of the offender.
Serious error: Error that substantially undermines the reliability of the guilt finding or death sentence imposed at trial.