The concept of being killed as a form of punishment has been around for a very long time. Individual societies have their own standards when it comes to deciding who deserves to be put to death and who deserves to live. In the United States, the death penalty is a state issue. Thus, each state can decide which factor(s) surrounding a crime have to be present before the death penalty option is triggered.
I don't claim to know the very large case body that covers the death penalty in the United States. Since it's a state issue, there has to be a long history of jurisprudence state by state. However, there are a couple of very important federal cases to be aware of.
In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court banned the death penalty in Furman v. Georgia. In that case, the Supreme Court decided that imposition of the death penalty was cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the 8th and 14th Amendments. After this ruling, no state carried out a death sentence.
Following the decision in Furman, several states amended their statues to comply with the court's holding. And after their laws were changed, they again began allowing the death penalty to be imposed, but there were no executions. But this wouldn't last long.
In 1976, in Gregg v. Georgia, the Supreme Court decided that the death penalty wasn't always cruel and unusual punishment. Furthermore, the framers of the Constitution were ok with the death penalty, and it had been part of the American criminal justice system since the country was founded [read about Stare decisis].
The Gregg decision, like Furman, consolidated several cases all with the same issue. In Gregg, the Supreme Court held that the states of Georgia, Texas and Florida had constructed death penalty statutes that abided by the constitution. However, North Carolina and Louisiana's death penalty statutes still violated the rights of the condemned because they had certain crimes for which, if convicted, the death penalty was mandatory.
It was also as a response to Furman that the bifurcated trial system came into existence for death cases. What this means was that a death case had two phases of the trial. The first was guilt/innocence (like a regular trial) and the second was for sentencing.
Georgia, Texas and Florida shared some commonality when determining who could be eligible for execution. Killing a cop, hiring a hit man, or committing murder while trying to escape from prison triggered the death penalty option in all three states but in different ways.
Following Furman, Texas narrowed its class of crimes for which the death penalty was an option. It created an objective guide for determining who could be charged for capitol murder, which simply means Texas intends to seek the death penalty at trial. Following a conviction for capitol murder, the jury then had to determine if special circumstances were present.
These special circumstances were, whether the crime committed was deliberate and with the intent to kill, whether the defendant would be a threat to society in the future, and whether the defendant's response to any provocation was unreasonable. If the jury found all three special circumstances to be present, death was automatic. If any were missing, the sentence was life without parole.
If you think about the special circumstances in the Texas model, it's easy to see why so many people have been sentenced to death and executed in that state. Special circumstance 1 is really a no-brainer. So is number 2. And number 3 wasn't applicable to all cases. Essentially, in capitol cases, all the state had to do was convince the jury the murder was deliberate with the intent to kill and the defendant would always remain a danger to society. This is a pretty low standard.
To this day, Texas still uses the special circumstances inquiry to determine sentencing in capitol cases but one rule has changed. The original number 3 has been replaced by a circumstance pertaining to a defendant that was convicted along with at least one other defendant. The inquiry was whether or not the defendant actually caused the death or intended that death would incur when helping commit the crime.
In Georgia, once a guilty verdict was rendered, the jury would then determine if the case was death penalty eligible by determining if any aggravating factors were present. An aggravating factor is simply something written into the law which could make a case death penalty eligible if present, such as killing a police officer. If the jury decided a defendant was eligible for the death penalty, it was allowed, but not required, to weigh any mitigating evidence against the aggravating factor(s).
You might ask what does mitigation mean in this context? Mitigation in a death case is any reason why the newly convicted should be allowed to live as opposed to killed. Examples are but not limited to: if the defendant was a victim of extreme childhood abuse, had a history of mental illness, or really had been a good person but made a bad choice. But keep in mind, under the Georgia system, the jury did not have to consider any mitigating evidence, and the Supreme Court held this constitutional.
The Florida system was similar to Georgia's, but in Florida, the jury had to consider any mitigating evidence. Another difference from Georgia was that the jury's determination about whether or not the defendant should be executed, was only a recommendation to the judge, who ultimately sentenced the defendant.
Since 1976, Texas has executed 478 convicts. Next in line is Virginia with 109 executions. In 10th place is South Carolina with 43 executions. In order, the top 10 states in total executions are Texas, Virginia, Oklahoma, Florida, Missouri, Alabama, Georgia, Ohio, North Carolina and South Carolina. Except for Missouri and Ohio, all of these states were part of the confederacy during the civil war.
Those states, by and large, have disproportionately executed blacks and arguably for racial reasons. Our country as a whole has a very disturbing history when it comes to racism. But it has always been worse in the south. I can say with 100% certainty, that racism is still very alive in the city of Chicago. But that's for another post.
The reasons for opposition and support of the death penalty varies greatly. Some see executions as immoral. Former Supreme Court justices Brennan and Marshall felt that all executions violated the constitution. Some oppose for religious reasons but some also support for religious reasons. But almost everyone has an opinion on this topic, much like abortion.
Prior to the last few years, I hadn't given this topic much thought. In other words, I hadn't done any critical thinking on my own. I lived in Texas for 4 years and executions were so regular, they never made the news, unless for some reason, the execution was stayed. But I was in college at the time. Thus, I was quite removed from this issue.
However, since returning to Illinois in 2002 to attend law school, things have happened that have made me acutely aware of the death penalty. In 2000, George Ryan, then governor of Illinois, put a moratorium on executions in Illinois. Since 1976, Illinois has executed 12 people on death row. However, 20 people were actually released from death row for various reasons. Governor Ryan was faced with the fact that the death penalty system in Illinois was horribly broken. He called a time-out and declared there would be no more executions until the system was fixed.
Ryan's interest in Illinois' death penalty largely arose over the case of Anthony Porter, who spent 15 years on Illinois' death row. A group of journalism students from Northwestern University uncovered evidence that proved Porter's innocence. He was eventually exonerated and released from prison and another person ended up confessing to the crime for which Porter had been convicted.
The fact that a group of undergrads righted this wrong was obviously troubling. The entire Illinois criminal justice system, which is supposed to keep the innocent from being convicted (let alone being sentenced to death) had allowed this to happen. From the local police department to the state's attorney's office to the defense attorneys to the trial judge to the appellate court and to the Illinois supreme court, this innocent man was scheduled to be killed.
No matter your view on the death penalty, I don't think anyone is comfortable with the idea of an innocent person being executed. Governor Ryan convened a committee to look into the matter. The committee uncovered significant problems and recommended changes. But the changes were never implemented. In response, 2 days before leaving office in January 2003, Ryan commuted everyone's sentence on death row to life without parole.
However, the death penalty was still in Illinois law. Thus, state's attorney's offices throughout the state kept seeking the death penalty and, in some cases, got it. In fact 15 people were on death row when Governor Quinn signed into the law the death penalty ban in March 2011.
My objection to the death penalty isn't on moral or religious grounds. I didn't have a problem with John Wayne Gacy being executed. My objection is simply this: the death penalty is an extreme punishment for which no margin of error can be allowed to exist in its imposition and it's been proven time after time to be subject to just that, or worse.
It's one thing for an eyewitness to mistake identification. That's bad enough. But when the police and/or the prosecutors break the law in bringing about any conviction and especially one that ultimately results in a death penalty being imposed, that's something that we cannot tolerate.
Police and prosecutorial misconduct are not a rare or isolated phenomena. In fact, it's a common occurrence. In death cases, it's just more magnified because it seeds the idea that someone was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death. I think this would bother anyone if confronted.
If you want to learn about a case of extreme police and prosecutorial misconduct, read about Randall Adams. Adams was convicted and sentenced to death in Texas in 1977 for the murder of a police officer. The U.S. Supreme Court later ruled that jury selection in his case violated his rights.
Instead of re-trying Adams, the Dallas district attorney convinced the Texas governor to commute Adam's death sentence to life without parole. Clearly Adams didn't like this and appealed to the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals (the highest state court in Texas), who ruled since the Governor had commuted the death sentence to life, there was no longer any error. I can't say that I really understand the rationale behind this decision.
Adams later filed a state habeas petition again with the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals. This time something didn't look right to the justices and they ordered that the trial court conduct a hearing on the petition and make findings of fact. This time, however, it was a different judge at the trial court level. In 1989, based on the factual findings from the habeas hearing, the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals reversed the conviction and after 12 years, Adams was freed.
The rationale behind the reversal was largely, if not entirely, based on extreme prosecutorial and police misconduct. The court determined that the prosecutor had withheld key evidence from the defense, suborned perjury, and lied to the trial judge. Pretty bad stuff. The prosecutor left the Dallas D.A.'s office in 1981 and set up a private practice in Dallas. However, he testified under oath at the habeas hearing, where he continued to deny any wrongdoing. The appeals court didn't buy it, however.
On top of the shenanigans the prosecutor pulled in order to convict Adams and get him sentenced to death, he goes into court later as a witness in the habeas hearing and according to the findings of the trial court, committed perjury. According to the Texas State Bar, he is still practicing in Texas and has never had any disciplinary action taken against him.
There was a documentary made about the Adams case while he was still in prison called "The Thin Blue Line". Errol Morris created the film and it was released in 1988. It's a very engaging piece of film and I'd recommend it to anyone interested in the death penalty and/or other issues mentioned in this posting.
Adams is but one case. But since 1976, there have been 140 death row exonerations in 26 states. Those are 140 people that were improperly sentenced to death. This doesn't mean that only 140 people were wrongfully sentenced. Who knows how many others were already executed or how many are still on death row that are actually innocent. But the point is that based on what we already know to be true, innocent people have been sentenced to death and some even executed. Thus, the death penalty is not perfect and absolutely must be.
However as long as humans are involved, it will always be subject to error both unintentional and intentional. How would you feel if you were sitting on death row for something you didn't do? And how angry would you be if the government had violated your rights to put you there? I can't really imagine what that would feel like.
When it comes to innate American concepts such as liberty, fairness, and due process, the constitution is a brilliant document. Unfortunately, since it was adopted and put into use over 200 years ago, much of it that deals with criminal justice, just looks good on paper these days. I have handled too many cases where the constitutional rights of my client simply vanished due to police and/or prosecutorial action or inaction.
The government should be the body most concerned with abiding by the constitution. But too often it's the body that cares the least and at times, acts as if it doesn't even exist. A government founded upon a constitution can never be just if it doesn't follow it. We citizens have to follow the law at all times. We are not able to pick and choose when we want to. Or what laws we want to obey.
If we don't follow the law, we are subject to prosecution. This is where the criminal justice system lies. And sadly, we are all subject to what happened to Randall Adams. But what about when the government breaks the law when we are prosecuted? Well, they are mostly immune because of their position and rarely are punished. But at the end of their violations of individual rights are innocent people that have been convicted and, in some cases, executed.
The constitution was created to prevent a tyrannical government. And if followed, it can accomplish just that. But if not followed, the thing that it was written to prevent, can run wild and unchecked.
Tyranny. Bad for everyone except for the tyrannical.