The Legality of the Death Penalty and the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court has dealt with numerous controversial issue. One of the most heated topics that the Supreme Court has dealt with repeatedly is the death penalty. The most recent case involving the death penalty was Sanford v. Kentucky.

The case of Sanford v. Kentucky was about the legality of giving the death penalty to minors under the age of 18. Sanford v. Kentucky in a vote of 5 to 4 rejected the premise that juveniles were prohibited by the death penality at the time of the crime in accordance with the 8th amendment prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment.

Justice Scalia wrote the majority decision for the court. Rehnquist, White, Kennedy and O’Conner supported the majority decision while Justices Brenan, Marshall, Blackmun and Stevens were in dissent. The case was argued on March 27 1989 and decided on June 26, 1989.

In the Court’s decision the judges agreed that a juvenile of the age of 16 or older could receive the death penalty but anyone under that age was prohibited from it. The court further stated that the death penalty was not a form of cruel and unusual punishment because the founders of the Bill of Rights and Constitution would not have thought it to be cruel or unusual. Scalia based his decision on the evolving standards of decency in which most states apply the death penalty to juveniles at least 16 years of age.

In the dissenting opinion, Justice Brenan argued that executing juveniles violated the revolving standards of decency in the United States.

One of the first Supreme Court decisions in its history that dealt with the death penalty was Furman v. Georgia in 1972. The case was decided by a vote of 5 to 4 and for the first time ever declared that the death penalty was a form of cruel and unsual punishment and should be made illegal. Justices Stewart, White, Brennan, Marshall and Douglass were for the court in the majority opinion while Justices Rehnquist, Burger, Blackmun and Powell dissented.

The facts of the case were that a jury in Georgia had convicted a man of murder. In addition another jury in Georgia and one in Texas convicted rapists and sent him to the death penalty. However in these cases there were no clear guidelines on sentencing.

In his majority opinion, Douglass declared that the death penalty was disproportionally applied to the poor and socially disadvantaged. Justice White’s reasoning was that since the death penalty was administered so infrequently, it was not enough of a deterrent to prevent crime. Justice Brennan stated that the death penalty was degrading to human dignity while Marshall found the penalty excessive.

The four justices who dissented in the case declared that public opinion suported the death penalty and that the decision to legalize the death penalty by legislators should not be challenged.

Four years later in 1976 the case of Gregg v. Georgia effectively overruled Furman v. Georgia. In Gregg v. Georgia sentencing guidelines were given to the jury to administer the death penalty and the court found this method acceptable. The Supreme Court no longer found inconsistencies in the sentencing constitutionally unacceptable.

These three Supreme Court cases had a huge impact on the U.S. justice system. After the ruling in Furman thousands of people on death row were put back in jail and after the ruling in Gregg, death row convicts were sentencing again to death. The case of Sanford v. Kentucky allowed juveniles over the age of 16 to be sentenced to death and declared that the death penalty did not violate the 8th amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.

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