Academic journal article Violence and Victims

Brief Reports

Academic journal article Violence and Victims

Brief Reports

Article excerpt

In 1972, the United States Supreme Court held in Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238, that the current system for the application of the death penalty was arbitrarily and randomly administered and, therefore, was unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment. The case's 5-4 decision, in which each justice filed a separate opinion in addition to the opinion of the Court, was an indication of the complex and emotional legal and moral questions related to the issue of capital punishment. In 1976, the Court reconsidered the issue of capital punishment in Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, and held that Georgia's revised sentencing guidelines protected a defendant from being sentenced capriciously and arbitrarily to death. Again, the Court was split on both the ultimate decision and in particular opinions. Justice Stewart wrote the opinion of the Court in which Justices Powell and Stevens joined; Justice White wrote a concurring opinion in which Chief Justice Burger and Justice Rehnquist joined; Justice Blackmun did not write an opinion and did not join in the opinion of others but did concur in the judgment; and Justices Brennan and Marshall each wrote dissenting opinions.

The Court's split with regard to issues related to capital punishment continues today. In the case presented below, the Court was asked to consider whether the execution of a 15-year-old violated the Eighth Amendment. Again, no clear-cut majority emerged. Four justices joined in the opinion of the Court, one justice joined in the judgment but not the opinion of the Court, and three justices joined in dissent. Because Justice Kennedy did not take part in the consideration or decision of the case, it is questionable how this issue ultimately will be resolved. It will be reconsidered by the Court during the October 1988 term.

Execution of juveniles under 16 years of age prohibited. Thompson v. Oklahoma, 108 S. Ct. 2687 (1988).

On the evening of January 22, 1983, William Wayne Thompson, a juvenile, and three older males left Thompson's mother's house with the intention of finding and killing Charles Keene. Keene, Thompson's former brother-in-law, reportedly had physically abused Thompson's sister. Thompson and his accomplices found Keene, beat him, shot him in the head twice, and cut his throat, chest, and abdomen. They then chained Keene's body to a concrete block and threw it in the Washita River. The body was not found until February 18, 1983, almost 4 weeks after the murder.

On February 22, 1983, the state of Oklahoma began proceedings to try Thompson as an adult. On March 29, the district court found probable cause to believe that Thompson had committed the murder, and on April 21, a hearing was held to determine if Thompson was amenable to treatment within the juvenile justice system. Based on Thompson's lengthy prior record and the juvenile justice system's numerous unsuccessful attempts at rehabilitating Thompson, the court concluded that Thompson should be tried as an adult.

Thompson was tried in the district court and was found guilty of first degree murder. At the sentencing phase, the jury found one aggravating circumstance: that the murder was especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel. The jury recommended that Thompson be sentenced to death.

The Court of Appeals affirmed Thompson's conviction and sentence. During the guilt phase of Thompson's trial, the prosecutor had introduced three-color photographs showing the condition of the victim's body when it was removed from the river. Although the Court of Criminal Appeals found that the introduction of two of these photographs was an error, the court held that the error was harmless because of the overwhelming evidence of Thompson's guilt.

The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari to consider whether the execution of a 15-year-old child violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment and whether the photographic evidence that was found erroneously admitted at the guilt phase of the proceedings, but that constituted harmless error, could be admitted by the prosecution during the sentencing phase without violating a capital defendant's constitutional rights. …

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