Major Death Penalty Cases in the US Supreme Court 1972 - 2008
The US Supreme Court verdicts below represent the current legal guidelines that permit and limit the death penalty in the United States. We start from Furman v. Georgia in 1972 because it marked the first time in US history where the US Supreme Court found capital punishment to violate the US Constitution. All eight cases remain non-reversed as of Oct. 6, 2008
Petitioner Patrick Kennedy was convicted and sentenced to death in Louisiana for the aggravated rape of his then 8 year-old stepdaughter. A Louisiana state statute authorized capital punishment for the rape of a child under 12. The State Supreme Court affirmed the statute, rejecting petitioner’s reliance on Coker v. Georgia, which prevented the use of capital punishment for the rape of an adult woman. The Supreme Court concluded that the Eighth Amendment bars Louisiana from imposing the death penalty for the rape of a child where the crime did not result, and was not intended to result, in the victim’s death.
"Patrick Kennedy, the petitioner here, seeks to set aside his death sentence under the Eighth Amendment. He was charged by the respondent, the State of Louisiana, with the aggravated rape of his then-8-year-old stepdaughter. After a jury trial petitioner was convicted and sentenced to death under a state statute authorizing capital punishment for the rape of a child under 12 years of age...
This case presents the question whether the Constitution bars respondent from imposing the death penalty for the rape of a child where the crime did not result, and was not intended to result, in death of the victim. We hold the Eighth Amendment prohibits the death penalty for this offense. The Louisiana statute is unconstitutional."
Kennedy v. Louisiana, p. 1
COURT RULING EXCERPTS
2. Baze v. Rees (PDF 356KB)
U.S. Supreme Court, 553 U.S. ___
Apr. 16, 2008
Petitioners Ralph Baze and Thomas C. Bowling, convicted for murder and sentenced to death in Kentucky state court, filed suit asserting that the lethal injection protocol violates the Eighth Amendment’s constitutional ban on "cruel and unusual punishments.” The state trial court upheld it as constitutional. Later, the Kentucky Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the lethal injection protocol was substantially safe from "wanton" and "unnecessary infliction of pain," torture, or "lingering death." The Supreme Court affirmed the lethal injection protocol as constitutional.
"Kentucky has adopted a method of execution believed to be the most humane available, one it shares with 35 other States... Throughout our history, whenever a method of execution has been challenged in this Court as cruel and unusual, the Court has rejected the challenge. Our society has nonetheless steadily moved to more humane methods of carrying out capital punishment. The firing squad, hanging, the electric chair, and the gas chamber have each in turn given way to more humane methods, culminating in today’s consensus on lethal injection...
The broad framework of the Eighth Amendment has accommodated this progress toward more humane methods of execution, and our approval of a particular method in the past has not precluded legislatures from taking the steps they deem appropriate, in light of new developments, to ensure humane capital punishment. There is no reason to suppose that today’s decision will be any different. The judgment below concluding that Kentucky’s procedure is consistent with the Eighth Amendment is, accordingly, affirmed. It is so ordered."
Petitioner Donald P. Roper, Superintendent at Potosi Correctional Center, challenged the Missouri Supreme Court agreement to set aside Christopher Simmons' death sentence in favor of life imprisonment without eligibility for release. At age 17, Simmons planned and committed a capital murder. After he had turned 18, he was sentenced to death. Simmons succeded in a new petition for state post-conviction relief, arguing that Atkins v. Virginia's reasoning established that the US Constitution prohibits the execution of a juvenile who was under 18 when he committed his crime. The Supreme Court held in favor of Simmons that the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments forbid imposition of the death penalty on offenders who were under the age of 18 when their crimes were committed.
"It is proper that we acknowledge the overwhelming weight of international opinion against the juvenile death penalty, resting in large part on the understanding that the instability and emotional imbalance of young people may often be a factor in the crime... The opinion of the world community, while not controlling our outcome, does provide respected and significant confirmation for our own conclusions...
It does not lessen our fidelity to the Constitution or our pride in its origins to acknowledge that the express affirmation of certain fundamental rights by other nations and peoples simply underscores the centrality of those same rights within our own heritage of freedom. The Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments forbid imposition of the death penalty on offenders who were under the age of 18 when their crimes were committed. The judgment of the Missouri Supreme Court setting aside the sentence of death imposed upon Christopher Simmons is affirmed. It is so ordered." Roper v. Simmons, p.11
Petitioner Timothy Ring was convicted of first-degree murder by an Arizona jury and sentenced to life in prison. A state judge then increased the penalty to death. Mr. Ring's death penalty was held by the Arizona Supreme Court using Walton v. Arizona as legal precedent affirming the state judge's power to increase the penalty to death. The US Supreme Court granted Ring's petition for certiorari and reversed the Arizona Supreme Court's judgment because in the year 2000 in Apprendi v. New Jersey the US Supreme Court had held that any fact that increases the punishment above the statutory maximum punishment must be either submitted to a jury or admitted by the defendant.
"For the reasons stated, we hold that Walton v. Arizona, and Apprendi v. New Jersey, are irreconcilable; our Sixth Amendment jurisprudence cannot be home to both. Acordingly, we overrule Walton to the extent that it allows a sentencing judge, sitting without a jury, to find an aggravating circumstance necessary for imposition of the death penalty. Because Arizona’s enumerated aggravating factors operate as 'the functional equivalent of an element of a greater offense,' the Sixth Amendment requires that they be found by a jury...
The right to trial by jury guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment would be senselessly diminished if it encompassed the
factfinding necessary to increase a defendant’s sentence by two years, but not the factfinding necessary to put him to death. We hold that the Sixth Amendment applies to both. The judgment of the Arizona Supreme Court is therefore reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion. It is so ordered."
Petitioner Daryl Atkins and his accomplice, William Jones, were convicted for murder. The jury convicted Atkins of capital murder even though the defense presented Atkins's school records and IQ score of 59 alleging that he was 'mildly mentally retarded.' On appeal, the Supreme Court of Virginia affirmed the sentence. The US Supreme Court reviewed and reversed the Virginia Supreme Court's judgment on the grounds that judgments of state legislatures regarding punishment of the mentally retarded had become more lenient since Penry v. Lynaugh in 1989
"Our independent evaluation of the issue reveals no reason to disagree with the judgment of 'the legislatures that have recently addressed the matter' and concluded that death is not a suitable punishment for a mentally retarded criminal. We are not persuaded that the execution of mentally retarded criminals will measurably advance the deterrent or the retributive purpose of the death penalty.
Construing and applying the Eighth Amendment in the light of our 'evolving standards of decency,' we therefore conclude that such punishment is excessive and that the Constitution 'places a substantive restriction on the State's power to take the life' of a mentally retarded offender. The judgment of the Virginia Supreme Court is reversed and the case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion. It is so ordered." Atkins v. Virginia, pp. 5-6
Petitioner Erlich Anthony Coker, while serving sentences for murder, rape, kidnapping, and assault, escaped from a Georgia jail. He broke into a house, raped and kidnapped the resident woman and took her car. Later Coker released the victim without any further physical injuries. He was eventually caght. The state of Georgia sentenced Coker to death on the rape charge. The US Supreme Court reversed that judgment on the grounds that death is an excesive penalty for rape.
"Rape is without doubt deserving of serious punishment; but in terms of moral depravity and of the injury to the person and to the public, it does not compare with murder, which does involve the unjustified taking of human life. Although it may be accompanied by another crime, rape, by definition, does not include the death of or even the serious injury to another person. The murderer kills; the rapist, if no more than that, does not. Life is over for the victim of the murderer; for the rape victim, life may not be nearly so happy as it was, but it is not over, and normally is not beyond repair. We have the abiding conviction that the death penalty, which 'is unique in its severity and irrevocability,' is an excessive penalty for the rapist who, as such, does not take human life. irrespective of malice. But even where the killing is deliberate, it is not punishable by death absent proof of aggravating circumstances...
It is difficult to accept the notion, and we do not, that the rapist, with or without aggravating circumstances, should be punished more heavily than the deliberate killer as long as the rapist does not himself take the life of his victim. The judgment of the Georgia Supreme Court upholding the death sentence is reversed, and the case is remanded to that court for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion. So ordered."
Petitioner Troy Leon Gregg was found guilty of armed robbery and murder and then sentenced to death by a Georgia grand jury. On appeal, the Georgia Supreme Court affirmed the death sentence, excluding its imposition for the robbery conviction. Gregg challenged his remaining death sentence for murder at the US Supreme Court, claiming that his capital sentence was a 'cruel and unusual' punishment in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments because the jury "wantonly and freakishly" imposed the death sentence. The Court rejected the claim and affirmed the sentence.
"The basic concern of Furman [v. Georgia] centered on those defendants who were being condemned to death capriciously and arbitrarily. Under the procedures before the Court in that case, sentencing authorities were not directed to give attention to the nature or circumstances of the crime committed or to the character or record of the defendant. Left unguided, juries imposed the death sentence in a way that could only be called freakish.
The new Georgia sentencing procedures, by contrast, focus the jury's attention on the particularized nature of the crime and the particularized characteristics of the individual defendant. While the jury is permitted to consider any aggravating or mitigating circumstances, it must find and identify at least one statutory aggravating factor before it may impose a penalty of death. In this way the jury's discretion is channeled. No longer can a jury wantonly and freakishly impose the death sentence; it is always circumscribed by the legislative guidelines.
In addition, the review function of the Supreme Court of Georgia affords additional assurance that the concerns that prompted our decision in Furman are not present to any significant degree in the Georgia procedure applied here. For the reasons expressed in this opinion, we hold that the statutory system under which Gregg was sentenced to death does not violate the Constitution. Accordingly, the judgment of the Georgia Supreme Court is affirmed. It is so ordered." Gregg v. Georgia, p. 16
Petitoner William Henry Furman was dicovered burglarizing a home. When attempting to escape, his weapon went off and killed a resident in the house. He was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Two other death penalty cases were decided along with Furman: Jackson v. Georgia and Branch v. Texas. These cases deal with the constitutionality of the death penalty for rape and murder convictions. The US Supreme Court held that the imposition of the death penalty in these cases constituted cruel and unusual punishment and violated Constitutional rights.
"Petitioner in No. 69-5003 [William Henry Furman] was convicted of murder in Georgia, and was sentenced to death ... Petitioner in No. 69-5030 [Jackson v. Georgia] was convicted of rape in Georgia, and was sentenced to death... Petitioner in No. 69-5031 [Branch v. Texas] was convicted of rape in Texas, and was sentenced to death...
Certiorari was granted limited to the following question: 'Does the imposition and carrying out of the death penalty in [these cases] constitute cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments?' The Court holds that the imposition and carrying out of the death penalty in these cases constitute cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. The judgment in each case is therefore reversed insofar as it leaves undisturbed the death sentence imposed, and the cases are remanded for further proceedings. So ordered."