Arbitrary and Capricious: The Supreme Court, the Constitution, and the Death Penalty

Arbitrary and Capricious: The Supreme Court, the Constitution, and the Death Penalty

Arbitrary and Capricious: The Supreme Court, the Constitution, and the Death Penalty

Arbitrary and Capricious: The Supreme Court, the Constitution, and the Death Penalty

Synopsis

"Nearly 100 influential Supreme Court capital punishment-related cases from 1878-2002 are examined, beginning with Wilkerson v. Utah, which question not the legitimacy of capital punishment, but the methods of execution. Over time, focus shifted from the constitutionality of certain methods to the fairness of who was being sentenced for capital crimes - and why. The watershed 1972 ruling Furman v. Georgia reversed the Court's stand on capital punishment, holding that the arbitrary and capricious imposition of the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment, and therefore unconstitutional. Furman clarified that any new death penalty legislation must contain sentencing procedures that avoid the arbitrary infliction of a life-ending verdict, which led to the current complex tangle of issues surrounding the death penalty and its constitutional viability." Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Excerpt

But all punishment is mischief: all punishment in itself is evil.

Jeremy Bentham, The Principles of Morals and Legislation

The instinct for retribution is part of the nature of man, and channel
ing that instinct in the administration of criminal justice serves an
important purpose in promoting the stability of a society governed by
law. When people begin to believe that organized society is unwilling
or unable to impose on criminal offenders the punishment they
"deserve," then there are sown the seeds of anarchy—of self-help, vig
ilante justice, and lynch law.

Justice Potter Stewart, Furman v. Georgia

Men are not hang'd for stealing Horses, but that Horses may not be
stolen.

George Savile

GENERAL BACKGROUND

The Supreme Court began to scrutinize the constitutionality of the death penalty in 1878 in Wilkerson v. Utah. In Wilkerson, the Justices unanimously held that death by firing squad did not violate the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. It would be another twelve years before the Court would hear a second capital case, In re Kemmler. The Court, in Kemmler, and again unanimously, held that the use of the electric chair was constitutional.

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