Constitutionality of the Death Penalty Term Paper

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In Woodson v. North Carolina, the Court held that an offense may not carry a mandatory capital punishment sentence, concluding that it violated both the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments because it precluded consideration of factors such as the defendant's character and life experiences in coming to a punishment decision (Larson 2003). This decision was affirmed in Roberts v. Louisiana when the Court held that even where a state narrowly defines an offense for which capital punishment be given, a mandatory imposition of the death penalty is unconstitutional (Larson 2003).

In Zant v. Stephens, a petitioner again alleged that an aggravating circumstance listed in the Georgia capital sentencing statue was invalid, and although the Court rejected the claim, it addressed the constitutionality of aggravating circumstances (Larson 2003). The Court held that an aggravating circumstance must "genuinely narrow the class of persons eligible for the death penalty and must reasonably justify the imposition of a more severe sentence on the defendant compared to others found guilty of murder" (Larson 2003).

In McClensky v. Kemp, the Court again considered the constitutionality of Georgia's capital sentencing system, due to a study submitted by the petitioner indicating that the death penalty was imposed in a racially discriminatory manner (Larson 2003). The Court found that the fact that similar defendants did not receive the death penalty did not constitute a violation of the Constitution since there is no prohibition against leniency in a particular case, thus because the petitioner was sentenced to death in accordance with the Georgia stature, requiring procedures to screen out arbitrary selection, petitioner's sentence was constitutional (Larson 2003).

In Walton v. Arizona, petitioners challenged the constitutionality of the Arizona capital sentencing stature, claiming that an aggravating circumstance listed therein was unconstitutionally vague (Larson 2003). The Court held that although the stature was impermissibly vague on its face, the Arizona court had sufficiently narrowed the statue, thus bringing it within constitutional limits (Larson 2003). The Court established the test that federal courts must undergo in order to determine the constitutionality of a state's capital sentencing stature. First, courts must determine whether the statute is sufficiently narrow so as to provide true guidance to sentencers, and if the statute is too vague, federal courts must determine whether state courts have sufficiently narrowed the terms in the statue so that the statue provides "some guidance to the sentencer" (Larson 2003). In Arave v. Creech, the Walton holding was reaffirmed, when the Court held that an aggravating circumstance is not unconstitutionally vague if a state's capital sentencing scheme limits sentencres' discretion so that their decision is not completely arbitrary, and if the aggravating circumstance truly narrows the class eligible for the death penalty (Larson 2003).

Over the past century, the United States Supreme Court has revised the death penalty doctrine, demonstrating concern with when and to whom it is applied and with how it is carried out (Patterson 2006). Krista L. Patterson notes in the April 2006 issue of the Duke Law Journal that while it is not surprising that this doctrine has evolved over time, considering that it is founded on a flexible standard found in the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, it is surprising that the Supreme Court's death penalty jurisprudence has demonstrated an overall trend restricting the power of the state in favor of the human rights of accused individuals (Patterson 2006). Furthermore, the death penalty doctrine in the United States has almost uniformly followed in the footsteps of death penalty developments in other Western developed democracies (Patterson 2006).

One of the ways by which the Supreme Court has limited the death penalty is by restricting the crimes for which the death penalty can be a punishment. In Coker v. Georgia, the Court held that capital punishment could not be imposed for rape, and in Enmund v. Florida, the Court restricted when the death penalty could be applied for felony murder (Patterson 2006). The Court, in both cases, focused its attention on whether applying the death penalty for those convicted of rape or felony murder would be consistent with the Eighth Amendment's evolving standard, and in both cases, defined this standard by looking at objective factors, such as actions of the state legislatures and sentencing juries, to determine "the country's present judgment" (Patterson 2006).

Gauging national opinion in its decisions regarding to whom the death penalty can be applied, the Court has recently held in Atkins v. Virginia that the death penalty could not be applied to those who are mentally retarded, and in Thompson v. Oklahoma, the Court found it cruel and unusual punishment in contravention of the Eighth Amendment to apply the death penalty to an individual who was fifteen years old or younger at the time of the crime (Patterson 2006). Patterson notes that the reach of Thompson was limited by Stanford v. Kentucky, which upheld the constitutionality of the death penalty to individuals who were seventeen years old at the time of the crime however this was recently overruled in Roper v. Simmons, in which the Court found the execution of individuals under the age of eighteen at the time of the crime to be unconstitutional under the evolving Eighth Amendment standard (Patterson 2006).

The jurisprudence of the Supreme Court and its appraisal of national consensus in these cases indicate a trend toward restricting the death penalty in the United States (Patterson 2006). Today, thirty-eight states still have statutes imposing the death penalty, yet only thirty-three have executed someone since 1976 (Patterson 2006). In 2004, fifty-nine individuals were executed nation-wide and in 2005, sixty were executed, a decrease from the ninety-eight who were executed in 1999 and the eighty-five who were executed in 2000 (Patterson 2006). Moreover, in 2004, the number of individuals sentenced to death marked a record low, 65% fewer than in 1998 (Patterson 2006).

As the recent Supreme Court rulings indicate, the American death penalty doctrine is slowly moving toward abolition. As Patterson notes, "the more vocal the opposition to capital punishment becomes, the more contradictory the fact that the United States still uses capital punishment becomes with its identity as a nation that respects human rights" (Patterson 2006).

Works Cited

Cottrol, Robert J. (2004 May 01). The Death Penalty: An American History. Stanford Law Review. Retrieved…

Sources Used in Document:

Works Cited

Cottrol, Robert J. (2004 May 01). The Death Penalty: An American History. Stanford Law Review. Retrieved January 14, 2007 from HighBeam Research Library.

Geraghty, Thomas F. (2003 September 22). Trying to understand America's death penalty system and why we still have it. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology. Retrieved January 14, 2007 from HighBeam Research Library.

Larson, Jessie. (2003 June 22). Unequal justice: the Supreme Court's failure to curtail selective prosecution for the death penalty. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology. Retrieved January 14, 2007 from HighBeam Research Library.

Patterson, Krista L. (2006 April 01). Acculturation and the development of death penalty doctrine in the United States. Duke Law Journal. Retrieved January 14, 2007 from HighBeam Research Library.

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