Gregg v. Georgia (1971)
In Furman v. Georgia (1971), the Supreme Court declared that existing state death penalty statutes were unconstitutional because they allowed too much discretion in sentencing. According to the Court, arbitrary and “freakish” implementation of the penalty was the result. Subsequently, 35 states wrote death penalty statutes that they hoped would conform to the standards that were outlined in Furman.
In Gregg v. Georgia (1976), one of the Death Penalty Cases of 1976, the Supreme Court approved Georgia’s redrawn death penalty statute. The seven-member majority ruled that Georgia’s death penalty statute did not violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The Court found that the statute provided sentencing standards that made imposition of the death penalty less likely to be arbitrary. It promoted individual justice by considering the particular circumstances of each case. The statute required juries to find at least one specified aggravating circumstance about the crime or the defendant, and considered against any mitigating circumstances that might be in place, before they could sentence a defendant to death. The statute also required mandatory appellate review of any death sentence. The Court concluded that a death sentence was not disproportionate to the crime of murder and that legislatures should be free to determine if the death penalty served as a deterrent to these types of crime and was supported by majority opinion.
The Court reasoned that its decision was supported by the text of the Constitution (the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments state that life, liberty, or property shall not be deprived without due process of law, thus implying that life can be taken by the state as long as due process is followed), the intentions of the framers (the death penalty was commonly used during the founding era), and judicial precedents (the courts had ruled in favor of death penalty statutes in the past). The Court also considered “evolving standards of decency” and concluded that, because 35 states and Congress had passed death penalty statutes following its decision in Furman, majority sentiment endorsed its use.
Robert M. Bohm, The Death Penalty in America (Cincinnati, OH: Anderson Publishing Company, 1991); and Bryan Vila and Cynthia Morris, eds., Capital Punishment in the United States: A Documentary History (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997).
Last updated: 2006
SEE ALSO: Criminal Justice