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Is the Death Penalty "Cruel and Unusual" Punishment?

The US Supreme Court has often dealt with the question of whether the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment, sometimes seeming to hold that it is cruel and unusual punishment and sometimes seeming to hold that particular ways of administering the death penalty are cruel and unusual.

Where does the law currently stand on whether the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment?

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"Unusual and Cruel" Punishment

Amendment 8 - Cruel and Unusual Punishment. Ratified 12/15/1791.

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

The two significant cases that dealt with the death penalty issue and whether it is "cruel and unusual" punishment are Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972) and Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976). The Furman holding placed the death penalty on a moratorium for four years. That was changed with the Gregg v. Georgia case. These cases can be found at www.findlaw.com.

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

Facts: This case dealt with the convictions and death sentences of three African American men: William Henry Furman who was convicted for murder in Georgia, Lucius Jackson who was convicted in Georgia for rape, and Elmer Branch who was convicted in Texas for rape. Georgia and Texas law leaves the penalty phase of a trial to the discretion of a judge or jury. In the case at hand the penalty phase was sent to juries. However, there were no mandates by law that the three juries vote for the death penalty, nor were there any specific criteria given to the juries to assist them in making their penalty decisions. The Supreme Court granted certiorari and consolidated all three cases under one case.

Issue: Whether the imposition and execution of the death penalty constitute "cruel and unusual" punishment within the meaning of the Eighth Amendment as applied to the States by the Fourteenth Amendment.

Ruling: Amendment 8, the "cruel and unusual" punishment amendment and how it applies to the States under the Eight Amendment.

Application:
The Supreme Court did an unusual thing by issuing a per curiam (FN1) opinion, on a 5-4 vote to reverse the death sentences of the three defendants. The per curiam decision signified that the Court was deeply divided over this issue.

Each of the nine justices in the Supreme Court wrote separate opinions. Justice Douglas, Justice Brennan Jr., Justice Steward, Justice White and Justice Marshall filed separate opinions in support of the holding, while Chief Justice Blackmun, Justice Powel and Justice Rehnquist filed separate dissenting opinion. Justice Douglas filed a an opinion concurring.

Justices Douglas, Brennan Jr., and Marshall both made a clear statement that the death penalty is "cruel and unusual" punishment regardless of how it is applied among the States.

Justice Douglas, however, pointed out the disproportionate application of the death penalty to poor and social disadvantaged people. He suggested that the death penalty is a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth ...

Solution Summary

This is 10,453 word document written in outline form addressing the U. S. Supreme Court's holdings on whether the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment. This solution discusses two key Supreme Court cases which will give the student an idea of the Court's holdings over this issue.

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