1976 July 2

Supreme Court Upholds Constitutionality of the Death Penalty

 

In Gregg v. Georgia, decided on this day, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of three state death penalty laws that had been passed following Furman v. Georgia on June 29, 1972. In Furman, the Court had held that the death penalty as applied was unconstitutional because of a lack of procedural safeguards. Following the Furman decision, the newly approved death penalty laws included a bifurcated jury process that separated the decision on guilt from the decision on the sentence, specification of aggravating and mitigating circumstances to guide jury decision-making, and appellate review of death sentences.

Justice Thurgood Marshall (see below) dissented, arguing that the death penalty was per se an unconstitutional violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

The Court: “While the jury is permitted to consider any aggravating or mitigating circumstances, it must find and identify at least one statutory aggravating factor before it may impose a penalty of death. In this way, the jury’s discretion is channeled. No longer can a jury wantonly and freakishly impose the death sentence; it is always circumscribed by the legislative guidelines. In addition, the review function of the Supreme Court of Georgia affords additional assurance that the concerns that prompted our decision in Furman are not present to any significant degree in the Georgia procedure applied here.”

Read: David Oshinsky, Capital Punishment on Trial: Furman v. Georgia and the Death Penalty in Modern America (2010)

Justice Thurgood Marshall, dissenting: “The death penalty, unnecessary to promote the goal of deterrence or to further any legitimate notion of retribution, is an excessive penalty forbidden by the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. I respectfully dissent from the Court’s judgment upholding the sentences of death imposed upon the petitioners in these cases.”

Learn more at the Death Penalty Information Center: http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/

Learn more: Stuart Banner, The Death Penalty: An American History (2002)

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