Capital Punishment Jurisprudence Term Paper

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Death Penalty

Within the realm of law, capital punishment jurisprudence is an important subject. The purpose of this discussion is to review several landmark Supreme Court cases and explain the evolution of capital punishment jurisprudence from 1972 to the present. The research will discuss the following cases: Furman v Georgia, Woodson v. North Carolina, Gregg v Georgia, McCleskey v Kemp, Ford v Wainwright, Atkins v Virginia and Roper v Simmons.

Evolution of capital punishment jurisprudence

If we begin with monumental court cases involving capital punishment jurisprudence, one of the first cases we must investigate is Furman v Georgia. This particular case actually involved William Henry Furman who was convicted of killing a man whose house he was burglarizing. Furman testified that while the burglary was taking place the victim woke up and as Furman tried to escape the gun misfired and killed the homeowner.

Furman was sentenced to death for the crime, because at the time the law held that murders occurring during the commission of a felony were punishable by death.

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The decision made by the court also included two other cases in which the death penalty was questioned, these cases were Jackson v. Georgia and Branch v. Texas and involved rapes (Furman v Georgia). The petitioners held that the death penalties in their cases violated the 8th and 14th amendment to the constitution which prohibit cruel and unusual punishment. In this case, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty sentence in all three cases were unconstitutional because they violated the 8th and 14th amendments.

TOPIC: Term Paper on Capital Punishment Jurisprudence Assignment

The findings of the court had as a foundation the arbitrariness of the death penalty sentences that were handed down. These sentences were found to be cruel and unusual after the court reviewed the nature of the cases. The Furman decision was monumental in that it forced law makers throughout the country to reform laws concerning when it is appropriate for a jury to sentence and individual to death. It also proved relevant in death penalty decisions made by the court in subsequent years.

In the case of Woodson v. North Carolina, which occurred 4 years after the Furman decision in 1976, the four petitioners had committed and been convicted of first degree murder. The murder was committed while the petitioners were committing an armed robbery. The store clerk was killed and a customer received injuries. In this case the petitioners claimed that the North Carolina law mandating the death penalty for anyone who committed first degree was unconstitutional because it was in conflict with the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. In this case the court ruled that "the North Carolina law was unconstitutional because it failed to take into account the "fundamental respect for humanity" inherent in the Eighth Amendment's requirement that punishment be "exercised within the limits of civilized standards (Woodson V North Carolina-Further Readings." This case was extremely important because it was the first following the Furman decision to bring the constitutionality of the death penalty back to the forefront. The decision of the court in Woodson v. North Carolina was consistent with the courts decision regarding the Furman case. Like the Furman case this case became instrumental in encouraging states to reform mandatory sentencing guidelines, so that the overturning of sentences could be avoided.

In the same year the case of Gregg v Georgia was also decided. Unlike the Furman and Woodson case, the Supreme Court upheld the death penalty in the Gregg Case. As it pertained to this case, Leon Gregg was convicted of killing two people whom he also robbed (Gregg v Georgia). Gregg asserted that the killing was in self-defense but both individuals were shot from a distance and also shot at point blank range. The petiioner claimed that the death penalty in this case again was in violation of the eighth and fourteenth amendments. In additon the petitioner's lawyer argued that the punishment was However the Supreme court ruled that in this particular case the Georgia statutute was not in violation of the constitution. As part of the decision the court explained further that the Georgia statutory system under which petitioner was sentenced to death is constitutional. The new procedures on their face satisfy the concerns of Furman, since before the death penalty can be imposed there must be specific jury findings as to the circumstances of the crime or the character of the defendant, and the State Supreme Court thereafter reviews the comparability of each death sentence with the sentences imposed on similarly situated defendants to ensure that the sentence of death in a particular case is not disproportionate. Petitioner's contentions that the changes in Georgia's sentencing procedures have not removed the elements of arbitrariness and capriciousness condemned by Furman are without merit (Gregg V Georgia)."

McCleskey v Kemp was argued 1986 and the decision was made in 1987. This death penalty case also involved a murder that occurred during an armed robbery. In this case the victim was a white police officer, responding to a silent alarm. This case was different than the aforementioned case in that the petitioner (a black man) argued that there was a proven racial bias in the state of Georgia as it pertained to the number of blacks sentenced to the death penalty when compared with whites who did not receive the death penalty but committed similar crimes. The study also showed that in cases where the perpetrator was black and the victim was white, a jury was more likely to recommend a death sentence than if the roles were reversed (McCleskey v Kemp).

A great deal of the case involved the presentation of the Baldus study which demonstrated that this bias did indeed exist. This case involved the question of equal protection under the law, in addition to the violation of the eighth and fourteenth amendments (McCleskey v Kemp). The Supreme Court Ruled that it was impossible to prove that racial bias played a role in the death penalty being handed down as it related to the petitioner, as such the death penalty in this case was found to be within the bounds of the constitution (McCleskey v Kemp).

One of the most famous Supreme Court cases involving the death penalty is Ford v Wainwright (1986). This case was of particular importance because it presented the issue of mental illness and whether or not people that are mentally ill could receive the death penalty. In this case the petitioner was sentenced to death for a murder committed in 1974. At the time of the conviction there were no questions raised concerning his sanity. However, over time the petitioner begin to develop signs of mental illness and it was confirmed that he was mentally ill. The Supreme Court found that it was unconstitutional to inflict the death penalty upon anyone that was deemed mentally insane. Justice Marshall presented the opinion stating that "The reasons at common law for not condoning the execution of the insane - that such an execution has questionable retributive value, presents no example to others and thus has no deterrence value, and [477 U.S. 399, 400] simply offends humanity - have no less logical, moral, and practical force at present (Ford V Wainwright)."

The death penalty case Atkins v Virginia (2002) dealt with the issue of death penalty sentencing a mentally retarded individual. In this case, Daryl Atkins was convicted of the murder of Eric Nesbit and sentenced to death (Atkins v Virginia). However because Atkins was found to be mentally retarded his lawyers petitioned the court to have hi sentenced commuted to life in prison (Atkins v Virginia). After lower courts refused to commute the sentence, the case was taken to the Supreme Court. The Court ruled that Atkins could not be sentenced to death because the constitution placed definite restrictions on the execution of people who are mentally retarded (Atkins v Virginia).

In the final case that will be discussed Roper v Simmons, the petitioner was 17 when he committed a capital murder. He was convicted of this crime when he was 18-year-old and sentenced to death. In this case the petitioner asserted that because he was 17 when the murder was committed he could not be sentenced to death as it was in violation of the eight and fourteenth amendments of the United States constitution (Roper v Simmons). These amendments prohibit the execution of those who were minors when their crimes were committed. The Supreme Court held that the execution of minors was indeed a violation of the eight and fourteenth amendments (Roper v Simmons). The justices also pointed out that there was a trend toward the absolute abolition of the death penalty for juveniles and that even in states where the execution of minors remained technically on the books, minors were rarely if ever sentenced to death (Roper v Simmons).

All of these cases have played instrumental roles in establishing the rules and boundaries by which the death penalty can be legally administered. Although each case contained dissenting opinions,… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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APA Style

Capital Punishment Jurisprudence.  (2008, June 22).  Retrieved October 24, 2021, from

MLA Format

"Capital Punishment Jurisprudence."  22 June 2008.  Web.  24 October 2021. <>.

Chicago Style

"Capital Punishment Jurisprudence."  June 22, 2008.  Accessed October 24, 2021.