New Era of Death Penalty Jurisprudence in the US

The death penalty has been a largely debated form of punishment within the criminal justice system of the united states of America since its inception. The law supporting this unkind and unfair sentence was thus, put under scrutiny, and consequently, several death sentences were either overturned or could only be carried out on proportionate grounds by the supreme courts heralding a new era in the criminal justice system of the US. The legal arguments for this decision made by the higher courts were cited in line with the 8th amendment that called for the exclusive considerations on several factors that mainly touched on racial disparities, age of a convict, proper evidence that can incriminate the accused persons, respective human rights action plans against such people, satisfactory judgment delivered either by unanimous decision or a majority of votes by the judges and so on.


This paper reviews several landmark cases scrutinized by the US Supreme Court in relation to the 8th amendments when carrying out the death penalty as a criminal form of punishment. The supreme courts being the highest judicial system satisfactorily made a decision based on the 8th amendment statutes to re-look into criminal cases viewed as cruel or unusual and instead provided an alternative favorable form of punishment such as handing down life sentences or a deserving death penalty. Where upon the latter sentence could only be carried out under properly established legal evidence. For instance, some states were forced to repackage their judicial laws after realizing that the judgment commonly delivered never materialized particularly when the cases involved are referred back to the supreme courts which in turn after careful hearing overturn the rulings in favor of the accused since they are found to be lacking the required thresh hold to meet the 8th amendment standards.

These circumstances instigated several states to re-enact laws governing the death penalty which was a major concern to the supreme courts’ contradiction to the imposition of death sentence arbitrarily. The applications of such fair trials justifying the subsequent sentences handed down by the supreme courts began from the year 1972 after capital punishment was found to be unconstitutionally biased and cruel unless in cases where such sentences were delivered after considering the extra routine endorsement. Following are some of the major landmark cases whose rulings were delivered in response to the statutes of the 8th amendment in accordance with the supreme courts’ concern on the presumed imposition of the death penalty. The cases and the respective judgment on the death penalty jurisprudence handed by the Supreme Court entirely depended on the moral significance culpable by the law and factors of discretion. Some of these factors guiding the justice system can then be categorized under sub-topics such as age, factors on racial disparities, mental state of a convict, proper evidence of aggravating circumstances, method of administering the death penalty, improper judgment, procedure on capital punishment, legislative judgment by some states and so on.

The Supreme Court in accordance with the laws governing the 8th amendment decided that the death penalty for a minor is a harsh kind of penalty. This is supported by the fact that in a 5-4 court ruling, it was labeled unconstitutional when any convict at the time of committing the crime is below the age of 18. Thus, it is morally incorrect to implicate children who commit a crime in relation to adults who have acted in the same way since their respective intentions cannot apply together. An example of such ruling involving a minor was a criminal case for Christopher Simmons who was sentenced for capital murder by death but later overruled; Case, Roper v Simmons (Head, 2010, p. 1).

Another example of such a case in which the age of a convict was contested involved a 15-year-old at the time of committing the crime. William Thompson was sentenced to death after being convicted of murder. Due to this, the Supreme Court overturned the decision of an Oklahoma court by explaining that the execution of the minor violated the eighth amendment statutes; Cited case, Thompson v. Oklahoma (Head, 2010, p. 1).

Racial disparities

Take, for example, a case involving an African American who was convicted of two counts of robbery plus one count of murder. After convictions in county courts and subsequently condemned to death, his plea was heard whereby the Supreme Court ruling overturned the death penalty imposed. The final ruling stated that the majority should not dictate matters of humanity since it’s unconstitutional. For example, it was viewed that those accused of killing white people could easily be handed death sentences compared to murderers for black persons. After much consideration and scrutiny of the penalty, the courts offered a platform for the voiceless like the accused person in question.i.e case, McCleskey v kemp (Head, 2010, p. 1).

The mental state of the convict

Mental instability in most persons is believed to have unnatural rage subconscious to a person’s mind. It is for this reason that informed the Supreme Court to offer a reprieve on the death penalty for mentally retarded persons who commit a criminal offense. As a result of this, the death sentence was found to be unconstitutionally excessive thereby restricting the state’s power to deliver the death penalty as a form of punishment on similar cases under the same state of mind. For instance, Daryl Atkins was convicted of murder even though his IQ score was 59 hence; the Supreme Court reversed the earlier ruling which did not evaluate his condition as that of mild mental condition; Case, Atkins v. Virginia.

Proper evidence of aggravating circumstances

Proper reasons were to be assembled and evaluated so as to be used against a convict. For instance, in order to incriminate a person, the Supreme Court made a decision to provide a clear distinction on where the imposition of death can be allowed. It was unanimously passed that there could be circumstances when the evidence produced could exempt the death penalty for non-murder offenses like rape except for crimes comparable to treason. This was seen during the trial for Antonym Coker who escaped from custody but got re-arrested and condemned to the death penalty for rape. The Supreme Court in turn after thorough deliberations overturned the first sentence arguing that it was too harsh on the ground that most rape cases may not involve murder (Crackers, 2010, p. 1). The higher court also felt that without such aggravating circumstances the ultimate punishment should not have been the death penalty; Cited case, Coker v. Georgia.

Another similar case in which a sentence by the lower court was annulled by that of the Supreme Court took place in Lousiana. The criminal case involved Patrick Kennedy accused of raping his 8-year-old stepdaughter. The Supreme Court then scrutinized his case after a successful appeal against a capital punishment handed earlier. The argument of the higher court then concluded that imposing the death penalty against the convict was against the 8th amendment and therefore unconstitutional because the crime neither resulted nor was intended to terminate the innocent life of his victim. Therefore, the ruling decided that the accused should instead be sent to life imprisonment; Case, Kennedy v. Louisiana.

Method of delivering the death sentence

In cases where the method used to administer the death penalty is considered cruel and painful, the Supreme Court could then deliberate on a particular ruling by a junior state court. This was observed during the sentencing of Ralph Baze who was convicted for murder and sure enough condemned to death by a Kentucky state court by lethal injection and instead appealed against the ruling, only for the sentence to be re-affirmed by the Supreme Court since the method for its application was considered safe after all.

The same scenario was also witnessed during the trial of Jimmy L. Glass who was sentenced to death according to the legal argument of Louisiana court by electrocution. Through his lawyers, he argued that the application and the intensity when passing the death sentence through electrocution can cause serious injuries and pain and therefore do not meet the humane standards as required by the constitution. The final judgment by the Supreme Court thus dismissed the petition thereby allowing the lower court’s ruling to go ahead; Case, Jimmy L. Glass v. Louisiana (Melusky, 2005, p. 87).

Improper judgment

Pending cases provided relevant provisions to re-appeal the death sentence if the trial is perceived to be as a result of the discretion of a judge determining the outcome of a case almost single-handedly. Take, for example, the trial of Timothy Ring, a convict of first-degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment only for a state judge to step up the penalty to another sentence by death. Consequently, though, the Supreme Court reversed the decision citing that statutory maximum sentence should be put before a jury panel since the judge was found to have acted improperly without a sitting legal bench who could have delivered a unanimous decision; Case, Ring v. Arizona.

Special procedure for capital penalty

It was realized that rulings could impose the death penalty by ignoring the nature or circumstance preceding a crime. Therefore, it was required that a jury must be able to cite a possible statutory aggravating legal requirement before delivering any formal penalty by death. Such a case where the judgment was allowed to stand as it was involved Troy Leon who was convicted for robbery and murder for which he was handed over death sentence (Lewis, 2002, p. 27). On challenging his trial, the Supreme Court rejected his plea and instead maintained the earlier verdict by dismissing the robbery factor since the statutory system was not found to violate the constitutional statutes; Case, Gregg v. Georgia.

The legislative judgments of some states

Several courts in some states decided to respond to the modification of the death penalty especially for a murder committed in relation to a felony. Such states that rejected the death penalty arising from committing a felony, therefore, illegalized the practice hence the Supreme Court found it as an appropriate way by providing more options for a fair trial. This was arrived at after establishing the fact that, the death penalty usually imposed may be too harsh for a convict who did not participate in a murder or intended to carry out such a heinous act. A case of study featured Enmund in which the death penalty was outlawed when determining the ultimate ruling by the supreme judges since they decided that it could not be imposed under circumstances of a felony; Case, Enmund v. Florida (Melusky, 2005, p. 87).

Contrary to the above case where a reprieve was provided by the Supreme Court, in Tison’s case, several state supreme courts amended their interpretation of the death penalty during such a case involving a felony by allowing capital punishment to take precedence in such future cases. This particular case was determined by analyzing noticeable circumstances of a felony during the murder. The death penalty verdict was thus delivered since inquiries revealed passion and recklessness; Case, Tison v. Arizona (Crackers, 2010, p. 1).

Though the death penalty was considered to be cruel and unusual, the methods of execution applied notwithstanding, provided a platform for debate across the board. This was realized during the intervention of the US Supreme Court appealing against such rulings by the junior courts. The debate, therefore, challenges the legality of the death penalty as a form of punishment for any crime. This issue revolves around factors such as the moral reason to kill, whether the death penalty is considered a handicap when the verdict is considered fair and whether a ruling against such a penalty is justified. These factors contributed immensely to the subsequent exoneration of many death row prisoners and reduced the charges to lesser punishments that are constitutionally relevant.

Reference List

Crackers, G. (2010). Reflecting on the eighth amendment rules versus standard and sub constitutional echoes. Web.

Head, T. (2010). The Eighth Amendment. Web.

Lewis, T. (2002). The Bill of Rights. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press.

Melusky, A (2005). Cruel and Unusual Punishment: Rights and Liberties Under the Law, Journal of Law. page 87

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DemoEssays. "New Era of Death Penalty Jurisprudence in the US." February 24, 2022.