The Return of the Executioner: 1976-1982
Assessing the meaning of the Supreme Court's ruling in Gregg v. Georgia 10 days after it was announced, an ACLU document did not mince words:
. . . the overwhelmingly important first fact is that The Supreme Court has now rejected the major constitutional arguments against the death penalty which have stopped executions in the United States during the past ten years.
. . . [The constitutional] attack has failed, and the resumption of executions -- possibly in numbers unknown since the 1940's -- is imminent. 1
Death penalty opponents had good reason to be concerned. Almost 500 post-Furman death-sentenced inmates now resided in the prisons of 35 states, and there was no reason to expect those states to drag their feet in putting them to death now that they had permission to do so. 2 But the long-dreaded (or eagerly awaited, depending on one's point of view) "bloodbath" wasn't truly imminent after all. The Supreme Court would spend the next several years fine-tuning the death-sentencing process it had allowed to reemerge. The nation would not see executions in significant numbers until the mid-1980s.
Between 1976 and 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court continued the "torturous effort to contain capital punishment within the rule of law" that had begun with Furman ( Weisberg 1983:305). It did so by agreeing to hear a long series of appeals to individual post-Furman death sentences. In bringing these appeals before the Court, the defense bar sought not only to overturn as many death sentences as possible, but also to achieve the long-term objective of proving to the courts that it was administratively and intellectually impossible to make the death penalty operate in a constitutional manner ( Weisberg 1983: 322). Many of the Court's rulings during this period adhered to the principle