Capital Punishment

Article excerpt


For the past 30 years, the U.S. Supreme Court has focused considerable attention toward providing the determination, modification and clarification of capital punishment legal issues and the imposition of the death penalty for capital crimes. These decisions have predominantly addressed state penal code punitive statutes and their ability to pass constitutional muster tests under the Sixth and Eighth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution's establishment of the right to trial by jury and the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, respectively.

The logical impact and consequence of this attention to the capital punishment issue has placed a greater burden on state legislative bodies enacting penal code statutes providing for the imposition of the death penalty to comply with higher standards of clarity and definition. It has also placed a greater burden on state prosecutors and local law enforcement officials during the gathering of evidence and investigation of criminal offenses, the filing of charges, and the punishment to be advocated at trial to review potential capital cases with even greater scrutiny and evaluation.

In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court in Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972), held that the death penalty as imposed by states whose statutes gave discretion to a jury alone was in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Although the death penalty was not in violation of the Eighth Amendment, the Supreme Court ruled jury discretion by statute for its imposition as being unconstitutional due to the lack of definitive standards, rare execution and application, and lack of a valid purpose both for retribution and deterrent value.

The reaction to Furman v. Georgia by states that imposed the death penalty in capital cases was to establish clear and definite criteria under state statute for capital punishment, and often required the trial court judge to hold an additional hearing to review evidence and other factual circumstances to determine the legal propriety of a convicted criminal defendant's sentence to execution. In continuing the Supreme Court's consideration of capital punishment standards and issues into the 21st Century, the Rehnquist Court elected to review the imposition of the death penalty against statutory sentencing guidelines and requirements.

In conducting this review, the Supreme Court has on several occasions analyzed mandatory/minimum sentencing schemes that are state statutorily established standards required for legitimate punishment supported by the law of that jurisdiction. This trend began with the Supreme Court's 2000 decision in Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466 (2000), in which the Supreme Court determined that the Sixth Amendment protected a convicted criminal defendant from enhanced punishment that would exceed the maximum punishment provided by law based on the facts as determined by the jury.

In Apprendi v. New Jersey, after the determination of facts at trial by the jury, the trial court judge imposed a more severe sentence and punishment than permitted under the statute based on additional matters disclosed at a second hearing conducted after a guilty verdict. The punishment enhancement by the trial judge alone was ruled unconstitutional and in violation of the defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a jury determination by the proof beyond a reasonable doubt standard of every crime element both as to guilt and punishment.

It was because of Apprendi v. New Jersey and these Sixth Amendment issues that the Supreme Court considered capital punishment and its constitutional impact in one of its cases decided during the 2001-2002 Term. When the Supreme Court's 2001-2002 Term began, 38 states had enacted penal code statutes providing for capital punishment under specified circumstances.

Of those 38 states, 29 gave that authorization to juries, five to the trial court judge after a post-conviction hearing prior to sentencing, and the remainder permitting a jury advisory recommendation on capital punishment that is not binding on the judge. …