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Death Penalty Cases Posted July 12, 2017

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 Death Penalty Cases


Witherspoon v. Illinois, 391 U.S. 510 (1968)

The court held that the state could not exclude for cause all jurors who expressed concerns about implementing the death penalty.  In this case the state eliminated over half the venire for cause do to the fact that they expressed conscious scruples against capital punishment.  The court held this was a violation of the defendant’s constitutional rights. 


Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972)

Furman was one of three cases before the court challenging the death penalty as unconstitutional, Jackson v. Georgia and Branch v. Texas were the other two.  Forman was a murder case while the other two were rape cases.  The decision in Furman was a 5-4 decision with each of the concurring judges writing their own opinion using different rationale for their decision in the matter.   3 of the 5 Justices took issue with the implementation of the death penalty, finding that the death penalty was disproportional applied to the poor, blacks and uneducated.  The court went as far as to cite studies that showed when co-defendants in a capital case were of different races there was a disparity between the sentencing of the white defendant and the black defendant, with the black defendant being sentenced to death at a much higher rate than their white co-defendants.  The court did not ban capital punishment as being per se cruel and unusual punishment but instead found that it was the disparity in the imposition of the death penalty that made it unconstitutional.  This line of rationale, although creating a moratorium on the death penalty, left the door open for the states to reimplement the death penalty through legislation; and thats exactly what happened  4 years later in Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976).


Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976)

Gregg was one of five cases before the court in 1976 challenging the constitutionality of the death penalty in the post Furman era.  The case of Gregg established the foundation for the death penalty in American courts today.  The court in Gregg found that the statutory scheme implemented in Gregg satisfied the concerns that the court had in Furman.  The court held that the statute requiring the finding of aggravating factors and allowing for the presentment of mitigating evidence insures that the death penalty cannot be applied in an arbitrary and capricious manner.   


Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U.S. 280 (1976)

This case addressed the issue of a mandatory death sentence for certain enumerated crimes. The court held that mandatory death sentences were unconstitutional and created the same issues that the court had addressed in Furman.


Coker v. Georgia, 433 U.S. 584 (1977)

The Court in Coker solidified the ruling in Furman that Rape is not a crime deserving of the death penalty and that it violates a defendant’s constitutional rights to be sentenced to death for a Rape.  The Court held “Rape is without a doubt deserving of serious punishment; but in terms of injury to the person and to the public, it does not compare with murder, which does involve the unjustified taking of human life.”  “We have the abiding conviction that the death penalty for the rapist who, as such, does not take a human life, irrespective of malice.”  



Lockett v. Ohio, 438 U.S. 586 (1978)

Solidified the fact that the defense is allowed to present mitigation evidence in the sentencing phase of a death case.  A death penalty statute must not preclude consideration of mitigating evidence in the sentencing phase or the statute is unconstitutional.  This was an extremely important case from the defense perspective as mitigating evidence is often the difference between life and death in a death penalty case.


Enmund v. Florida, 458 U.S. 782 (1982)

The court returned to its individualized approach to the death penalty by assessing each persons personal level of culpability in the crime charged.  In the Edmund matter he was the getaway driver who waited in the car and did not participate in the actual killing of the individual.  The court found that when there is no proof that the defendant killed of attempted to kill anyone his level of culpability is not great enough for the death penalty to be handed down. 


Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 399

The court heard that it was unconstitutional to execute an individual who is insane and is not aware of his impending execution or the reasons for his execution.  This does not mean that the person is necessarily insane at the time of the crime but is insane prior to his execution and therefore cannot be executed.


Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986)

This case set the standard that a juror cannot be excluded from a trial based solely on their race.  http://www.uscourts.gov/educational-resources/educational-activities/facts-and-case-summary-batson-v-kentucky


Tison v. Arizona, 481 U.S. 137 (1987)

This case qualified the rule set out in Edmund v. Florida that a person must kill of attempt to kill another to justify the use of the death penalty.  In Tison several family members helped their father and his cell mate, who were incarcerated for murder, escape from prison.  During the escape the vehicle they were in broke down so they devised a plan  to flag down a motorist and steal their vehicle.  They defendants flagged down a family of four and ordered them out of the vehicle.  The father and his cell mate told the other defendants to go get he family water and when they walked off the father and his cell mate murdered the family.  The court held that although Tison did not kill anyone and did not intend to kill anyone, he did conspire to known killers and did nothing to aid the family when he had the chance. The fact that Tison anticipated the use of lethal force in the escape attempt satisfied the intent requirement for the death penalty.


Thompson v. Oklahoma, 487 U.S. 815 (1988)

Held that the execution of a person who was under 16 at the time of the commission of the crime is a violation of the 8th Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.  This ruling was eventually extended to all individuals who were under the age of 18 when the murder was committed. (Roper v. Simmons)


Penry v. Lynaugh, 492 U.S. 302 (1989)

It is not unconstitutional to execute a mentally retarded individual who has committed murder.  This ruling was eventually overturned in Atkins v. Virginia.


Stanford v. Kentucky, 492 U.S. 361 (1989)

The Supreme Court held that it was not unconstitutional to execute a defendant who was 16 or 17 at the time of the murder.  This was eventually overturned in Roper v. Simmons.


Payne v. Tennessee, 501 U.S. 808 (1991)

Affirmed the right of the prosecution to present victim impact statements during the sentencing phase of a capital murder trial.  The court reasoned that since the defense is allowed to present mitigation evidence with virtually no limits then the State should be allowed to present evidence to counter the mitigation evidence.


Morgan v. Illinois, 504 U.S. 719 (1992)

Established the right to an adequate voice dire in a capital murder case and that a juror who would automatically vote for death upon conviction is prejudiced and should not be allowed to sit on a capital jury.  The trial court in Morgan refused to ask the potential jurors if they would automatically impose the death penalty upon conviction.  Failure to determine whether a juror would automatically impose death was a violation of the defendant’s constitutional rights.


Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002)

The execution of a person convicted of murder who is mentally retarded is unconstitutional.  There is no hardline rule on what metal retardation is as it applies to the death penalty but the general rule is that below a 75 IQ is generally accepted as the threshold for 

mental retardation.


Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584 (2002)

Held that a jury must find at least one aggravating factor before the death penalty may be considered as punishment.  This case arose out of Arizona where the jury only decided guilt or innocence and the sentencing phase of the trial was put in the hands of the judge alone.  A judge may make the ultimate decision between life and death but a jury must find aggravating factors as aggravating factors are an issue of fact.


Wiggins v. Smith, 539 U.S. 510 (2003)

The sixth amendment right to competent counsel requires that a defense attorney conduct a mitigation investigation in any capital murder case.  Failure to conduct a mitigation investigation is considered ineffective assistance of counsel and is grounds for reversal.


Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005)

It is unconstitutional to execute an individual for capital murder who was under the age of 18 at the time of the commission of the crime.  This is a bright line rule; an individual can be 17 years and 364 days old at the time of the commission of the murder and cannot be punished by death. 


Oregon v. Guzek, 546 U.S. 517 (2006)

The Supreme Court held that evidence of guilt or innocence can be excluded from the sentencing phase of a capital murder trial. The court held that it was not a violation of the defendant’s constitutional rights for the trial court to preclude the defendant from presenting alibi evidence during the sentencing phase of the trial.


Kennedy v. Louisiana, 554 U.S. 407 (2008)

The court reaffirmed that only murder is a capital offense.  The Supreme Court struck down a Louisiana statute that allowed the death penalty for the rape of a child.

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