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LegalSpeak: Gregg v. Georgia (1976)

Eighth Amendment Read more from
Chapter The Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment

Justice Potter Stewart (plurality): “The most marked indication of society’s endorsement of the death penalty for murder is the legislative response to Furman. The legislatures of at least 35 States have enacted new statutes that provide for the death penalty for at least some crimes that result in the death of another person…. These recently adopted statutes have attempted to address the concerns expressed by the Court in Furman primarily (i) by specifying the factors to be weighed and the procedures to be followed in deciding when to impose a capital sentence, or (ii) by making the death penalty mandatory for specified crimes. But all of the post-Furman statutes make clear that capital punishment itself has not been rejected by the elected representatives of the people.”

Justice Byron White (concurring): “Imposition of the death penalty is surely an awesome responsibility for any system of justice and those who participate in it. Mistakes will be made and discriminations will occur which will be difficult to explain. However, one of society’s most basic tasks is that of protecting the lives of its citizens and one of the most basic ways in which it achieves the task is through criminal laws against murder. I decline to interfere with the manner in which Georgia has chosen to enforce such laws on what is simply an assertion of lack of faith in the ability of the system of justice to operate in a fundamentally fair manner.”

Justice William Brennan (dissenting): “Death is not only an unusually severe punishment, unusual in its pain, in its finality, and in its enormity, but it serves no penal purpose more effectively than a less severe punishment; therefore the principle inherent in the Clause that prohibits pointless infliction of excessive punishment when less severe punishment can adequately achieve the same purposes invalidates the punishment. The fatal constitutional infirmity in the punishment of death is that it treats ‘members of the human race as nonhumans, as objects to be toyed with and discarded.’”

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.”

While instruments like the electric chair and guillotine are no longer used, some states still exercise the death penalty, usually by injecting lethal drugs into the condemned inmate (iStock).
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