The debate over the death penalty remains and the Supreme Court will most likely be asked decide such cases for years to come.
Summary and Conclusion
The purpose of this discussion was to examine several landmark Supreme Court cases and explain the evolution of capital punishment jurisprudence from 1972 to the present. The research focused on the cases of Furman v Georgia, Woodson v. North Carolina, Gregg v Georgia, McCleskey v Kemp, Ford v Wainwright, Atkins v Virginia and Roper v Simmons. The research demonstrates a gradual evolution in the manner in which the Supreme Court views cases involving the death penalty.
In cases such as Furman v Georgia the arbitrary nature of the case was taken into account. The fact that the murder was not premeditated seemed to also be taken into account. The facts of the case seem to indicate that Furman went to rob someone and that murder was not the intended crime. As such the court ruled that the death penalty constituted cruel and unusual punishment.
In the Woodson V North Carolina case the question at hand involved the mandatory sentencing laws of the state. In this case the Supreme Court also ruled that mandating such punishment was cruel and unusual. This case was also viewed as important for the Supreme Court because it was related to the Furman decision and the Court's stance regarding the death penalty as it pertained to certain crimes.
The McCleskey v Kemp case was interesting because it did show that blacks were more likely to receive the death penalty. However, as it pertained to the petitioner the court found that the racial bias could not be proven in his case and thus the claim of not having equal protection under the law was not proven. The court pointed out that guided discretion was properly utilized and the state was correct in inflicting the death penalty in this particular case.
In the other cases involving jurisprudence, mental illness, mental retardation and age played a role in the decisions made by the Supreme Court. As it pertained to mental illness, Ford v Wainwright set precedence for ensuring that those found to be mentally ill could not be sentenced to death. The Supreme Court ruled that there was nothing to be gained by the execution of the insane. The court held that such punishment is cruel and even barbaric.
The case of Atkins v Virginia brought into question the constitutionality of executing the mentally retarded. The courts decision clearly reflects the constitutional protection given to the mentally retarded as it pertains to the death penalty. The court found that those with limited mental capacity do not fully understand their actions and as such they cannot be fully held accountable for those actions.
The Roper v Simmons case was related to the Atkins cases as it pertained to metal competency. In Roper v Simmons the petitioner asserted that the death penalty could not be given to someone who was a juvenile at the time they committed a crime. The Atkins case was used to make the claim that the petitioner did not have the mental capacity that comes with maturity, to understand the nature of the crime that was committed. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the petitioner and his sentence was commuted to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Overall it is apparent that the Supreme Court views the death penalty as a just punishment in some cases, but not in other cases, even where a murder has occurred. In cases where the murder occurred during the commission of the felony, but where it is also obvious that the individual convicted in the murder, did not intend to kill the victim the death penalty is viewed as cruel or unusual; particularly if the death penalty sentencing is viewed as arbitrary. The Supreme Court has played an instrumental role in assisting states in understanding when the death penalty in permissible under the United States constitution.
In addition, factors such as the mental health, Mental capacity and the age of the victim are all taken into consideration as it pertains to the landmark death penalty cases presented in this discussion. It seems that from 1972 until the present time, the Supreme Court has been rather firm and consistent as it pertains to determining when the carrying out of the death penalty is not in violation of the eighth and fourteenth amendments. However, in all these cases it must be noted that there were justices that dissented and Justices such as Marshall asserted that he believed that the death penalty under any circumstances is cruel and unusual punishment.